Normally, I don't pay attention to minor events like midterm elections, but this year I've been captivated by the rise of the Tea Party, which defies any singular description but, as Sean Wilentz argues in The New Yorker (see here), has definite roots in the old John Birch Society, with a large dollop of the present-day religious right. The Tea Party, by itself, does not elevate the current midterm elections from minor event to major event, however. To put it bluntly, these midterm elections will not change very much in Washington (for better or for worse).
Having taken a quick look at the most recent polling data - a sure recipe for erroneous predictions - here's how I see the election shaking out. The Republican/Tea Party has a better than even chance of taking back the US House of Representatives and a less than even chance of taking back the Senate. The wackiest of the Tea Party wackos, including Christine O'Donnell (Senate candidate in Delaware) and Carl Paladino (gubernatorial candidate in New York) will lose handily. But don't fret too much about that. Even if the craziest of the crazies don't make it, there is still plenty of crazy to go around. For instance, borderline psycho Sharon Angle should prevail over the man who personifies the word insipid, Harry Reid, in Nevada.
The changing cast of Congress may be a dream come true for the likes of John Stewart and Steven Colbert. The silly (Sharon Angle) is always a better target for ridicule than the boring (Harry Reid). President Obama will obviously not be so pleased. He will have to try - probably an exercise in futility - to work with the nuts on both sides of the aisle. Even from the president's perspective, however, it's difficult to see how much will change as a matter of policy. It certainly won't make any practical difference on issues such as climate policy, which are going nowhere even with the Democrats in control of both houses. Should the Republicans take the House of Representatives, the president will lose the surprisingly able and effective leadership of Nancy Pelosi; but given the lack of effective Democratic leadership in the Senate, Obama's policy agenda for the next two years probably would not have been enacted anyway.
Meanwhile, the Republicans/Tea Partiers will not have the votes to do the kinds of things they have promised to do, such as repealing "Obamacare" (a.k.a., "Romneycare") and the new financial regulations. President Obama will wield his veto pen without fear of legislative overrides. This will no doubt annoy Tea Partiers, who will probably respond by pushing for a constitutional amendment to revoke the president's veto power (but only for Democratic presidents). Absent that, the next Congress will witness no significant, let alone dramatic, reduction in the size and scope of the federal government (for better and for worse).
Despite all of the talk about this midterm election as a game-changer, the stakes are probably a lot lower than most pundits are willing to admit. We will not see the scale of change that occurred in 1994, when Republicans retook control of both houses of Congress (if only fleetingly) for the first time in 40 years. If the Republicans take only the House on this occasion, this should at least minimize the risk that they will seek to impeach President Obama for being a socialist or a Kenyan or a closet Muslim. That might save us taxpayers a few bucks each. More importantly for relative moderates like me, the chief value of this midterm election might be to divide power between the parties so as to make it less likely that anyone - Democrats, Republicans, or Tea Partiers - can accomplish anything truly radical. Successful legislative proposals will have to be compromise measures. For those who prefer gridlock, I might add that I see little appetite for compromise among the various factions in the coming Congress. The next Congress is likely, therefore, to be a do-nothing Congress, which is not after all the worst thing in the world.
Finally, I suspect that a moderate Republic/Tea Party victory in the midterm election might be a good thing for President Obama's reelection bid two years from now. If Mr. Obama can stay above the fray as Congress squabbles, his approval rating could well rebound between now and 2012. He would be helped even more if the Tea Partiers are able to assert greater authority over the Republican agenda. I suspect the President would like nothing more than to run for reelection against candidates campaigning on issues such as a return to the gold standard, taking health care insurance away from millions of newly insured Americans, nuking Iran, privatizing social security, and re-deregulating financial markets.
Bottom line: the importance of these midterm elections has been greatly exaggerated.