This "wave" election was all about the economy. Republicans would be wise not to make the same mistake Democrats did two years ago and think it was about them and their ideology.
An increasingly frustrated electorate doesn't really want conservatives or liberals to "take back" America. It just wants them to fix the economy. Now.
That will be hard, and not just because our complex economic problems were long in the making. Republicans and Democrats are too concerned about their own political power to work together, make tough choices and tell voters the truth.
Neither party has the political courage to say we must cut wasteful spending, invest in physical and social infrastructure, and, yes, raise taxes if we want a strong, sustainable economy unencumbered by debt.
A recent McClatchy-Marist Poll of registered voters found that, by a 77 percent to 22 percent margin, most want Republicans to work with President Barack Obama to solve problems rather than stand firm to the point of gridlock.
Don't hold your breath. Many of the Democrats and Republicans swept out of office this year were moderates. Hard-liners on both sides have now been joined by a handful of Tea Party conservatives, who will make compromise even more difficult. Besides, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said his top priority is making Obama a one-term president.
"I'm afraid we're in for a period of deadlock over the next couple of years," said Charles Haywood, retired dean of the University of Kentucky's Gatton College of Business and Economics, who has helped shape economic policy in this state for decades.
"My expectation for the next two years is that it's just going to be a campaign for the presidency," Haywood said. "I hope I'm wrong."
For one thing, the economy is unlikely to see new stimulus spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that federal stimulus spending increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million and lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.
But Republicans campaigned against stimulus spending, citing deficit fears. Now they control the House of Representatives, where spending bills originate. That new political reality led the Federal Reserve last week to launch a stimulus of its own, essentially pumping $600 billion into the banking system.
Liberal economists such as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman have argued that the stimulus wasn't more effective because it wasn't big enough. Haywood thinks a problem was that federal bureaucracy kept stimulus money from being spent quickly or efficiently enough.
"The anti-government political movement may be right for the wrong reason," he said. "It's not that government programs are bad. It's the failure to get them implemented efficiently."
Tea partiers' calls for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution are foolish, Haywood said. Deficit spending is a vital tool for reviving a weak economy; the problem comes when it persists in good times.
Rather than being worried about the federal deficit now, Haywood said, politicians should focus on bringing down the nation's international trade deficit. That will be hard to do politically, because Americans have become hooked on cheap foreign imports.
Reducing the trade deficit would likely mean allowing the dollar to fall in value, Haywood said. It also would mean changing tax rules to encourage companies to keep manufacturing jobs here — strengthening the middle class and average people's ability to fuel the economy with consumer spending — rather than shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, where cheap labor boosts corporate profits.
American history shows that neither the political right nor the left have all the answers to creating long-term prosperity. Both Republicans and Democrats must figure out how to temper their ideologies and political ambitions and work together for the good of the country.
If the economy hasn't improved substantially two years from now, we could see another "wave" election. Republicans and Democrats should both know this by now: the thing about waves is that they go out just as surely as they come in.