I have this strange feeling that we are about to be badly misled about the political climate in this country. We are going to look at the returns on the biggest Republican victory in 16 years and think that it spells doom for the Democrats and a shift to the right in our politics. And we will be wrong.
The size of the Republican gain will be exaggerated by the severity of their losses in the preceding elections. They will pick up many seats in the House, perhaps 50 or so, because they lost so many in 2006 and 2008.
A more realistic way of gauging their strength will be to ask about the size of their majority. And it is likely to be minuscule. If it reaches double digits, Republicans will have done very well. More likely, John Boehner will be elected speaker by a handful of votes.
Moreover, it appears increasingly likely that Republicans will have to share control of Congress with a Democratic Senate. For the first time in eight decades, a shift in control of the House may not be accompanied by a similar shift in the Senate. The mandate that is being given the GOP is of the most provisional sort.
What this means to me is that the voters are withholding any real verdict on their party preference. The polling says that the ratings they give the parties individually have rarely been weaker. Large majorities of Republicans express doubts about the GOP. And large majorities of Democrats about their own party.
Why the suspended judgment? Just look at the landscape. Neither party can claim success on the most urgent task, providing an economic blueprint that allows people to lead their lives with confidence. The stewardship of George W. Bush and the Republicans was a disaster. The Democrats and Barack Obama have been only marginally more successful.
Who in either party has put forward explanations of economic forces that make sense to most voters? No one. The steadiest voice has come from an unelected official, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. And the bearded academic is hardly a pop figure. He disdains both political parties and most politicians.
Congress is notably devoid of economic giants. When debates take place in the Senate, the Democratic side is often led by a lame duck, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who decided early this year not to seek re-election. On the Republican side, Bob Bennett of Utah, perhaps the GOP’s most credentialed and experienced spokesman, was knocked off in a state party room-sized convention, and has not been replaced.
In the House, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has assumed the role of analyst and provocateur. But no one on the Democratic bench has taken up his challenge, so it is a dialogue of the deaf at this point.
What is true of the economic debate is equally the case when it comes to other issues. Neither party regularly presents compelling spokesmen making articulate arguments.
The public rightly senses that the campaign rhetoric is shopworn, gauzy stuff, not substantial enough for the wear and tear of the real world.
With the recent exodus of three key White House economic figures — the budget director, the chief economist and the overall economics coordinator — there is a temporary gap in the executive branch as well.
No wonder the voters are uncertain. So are the policymakers.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.