Democrats got a sort-of wave. And now they have a choice.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Somehow, a lot of liberals I know woke up yesterday feeling dark and deflated about the country, confronted by the sudden realization that we’re still deeply divided, the Republican Party still exists as a viable entity, and President Trump is not going to be tried for treason and hurled into the nearest sea.

It’s like someone promised them avocado toast and then brought out yogurt that isn’t even Greek.

Such has been the state of our politics, for a while now, that neither party’s base will enjoy a restful night’s sleep until the other has been entirely eradicated, its last adherents driven into the hills with nothing but goats and canteens. Democrats didn’t get there Tuesday, but make no mistake: By any historical measure, they had a pretty great night, and the president’s party did not.

Analysts struggled in real time with what to make of these midterm elections. It wasn’t the kind of tsunami Democrats spent much of the year hoping for, which might have delivered not only the House but maybe the Senate, too.

The word “realignment” got tossed around too, although that’s a pretty specious one; historically, realignments solidify some kind of ideological or regional shift that’s been long in coming and will last for a while. That didn’t happen here, and in any event, loyalties to everything are so fleeting now that I’d argue the whole idea of a semi-permanent realignment belongs to the 20th century.

No, what we saw this week, I think, could more accurately be called a correction, like you see in financial markets. And in the bigger picture, that correction was only partly about Trump and his dystopian, neo-nativist appeal.

Consider, first, that we’re living through a remarkably volatile era in American politics. Wave elections, as we call them, were pretty rare for most of the last century, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress — with only occasional interruptions — for about 60 years.

Between 1994 and 2010, however, three massive waves washed over Washington, powered mainly by frustration with whoever happened to be in charge at the moment. We’ve now seen four straight presidents lose control of the House in midterm elections, and if Trump were to be reelected, he might well become the fourth consecutive president to see both chambers of Congress change hands.

That’s a kind of back-and-forth, partisan instability that no generation of Americans before us has experienced. It tells you, if you hadn’t already figured it out, that we’re in an age mostly defined by voter outrage (and well-earned outrage, at that), where to be in charge of things is to be automatically imperiled.

And here’s the thing about giant waves, if we can stay with the metaphor for a bit: They wash ashore all kinds of jetsam and flotsam that really shouldn’t be there in the first place, and then, when they recede, they tend to wash a lot of it back out again.

So it was in 2010, when the anti-incumbent tide roared over Washington and the rest of the country, enabling Republicans to claim a lot of seats in moderate suburbs and states that they really had no business hoping to win. They held onto most of those seats through three successive elections, when Democrats still controlled the White House.

But this year’s elections were the first since 2010 in which Republicans had to defend that majority with their own party in full control of Washington. Which means that even absent Trump and his pathological divisiveness, the wave was likely to wash back out to sea, taking with it a lot of the contested seats Republicans needed to maintain unilateral control.

And that’s about where we ended up. The broad expanse of middle America didn’t offer up the resounding repudiation of Trump that Democrats would have hoped for. Nor did Trump’s late appeal to the worst instincts of the electorate manage to reverse the perennial, anti-incumbent tide.

Instead, we netted out at a neutral place, divided once again between two parties whose cultural identities seem to move ever further apart. The big correction returned us, for the moment, to the sad status quo of our times.

Democrats, however, have a lot more reason than Republicans to feel optimistic. As the pre-election hoopla fades into memory, and as they get over not having banished Republicans to some kind of interstellar prison like General Zod in the old Superman movies, liberals will realize that this week’s results have opened a door for them.

In taking back the suburbs, Democrats won the popular vote Tuesday by as much as 9 points, according to the latest estimates — a landslide by the standards of recent elections. More than 100 Democratic women will move into the Capitol in January. That means, given the upward gravitational pull of politics, that Democrats will now have talented women candidates running in statewide elections for many years to come.

Democrats did manage to flip six governors’ seats, including a major upset in Kansas and a close victory in Wisconsin, dispatching two of their least favorite Republicans — the Trump acolyte Kris Kobach and the anti-union Scott Walker. They will now control almost half the statehouses, where new ideas and talent take root.

Sure, Democrats are disappointed that they lost seats in the Senate, and that they probably lost close governors’ races in Florida and Georgia. (The latter isn’t settled.) But nominating two African-American candidates statewide in the Deep South, and seeing them come within a few lengths of victory, would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, and it points to the unstoppable momentum of history. (So does the election of an openly gay governor, Jared Polis, in the perennial swing state of Colorado.)

The pressing question Democrats should be asking themselves now is what these elections are telling them about the next presidential race. Because let’s be real: Congress isn’t going to legislate so much as a Mother’s Day proclamation between now and 2020. The next campaign started yesterday.

The liberal base seems inclined, as of now, to get behind candidates who they think can match Trump’s celebrity appeal. There’s a lot of buzz around defiant figures like Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and even some talk this week about the latest liberal idol, Beto O’Rourke.

But it wasn’t the celebrity candidates in deep red states who delivered the big Democratic victories Tuesday (although a few of them came awfully close); it was the less flashy, less known congressional nominees, veterans of the military or the Obama administration, who took back moderate districts in winnable states.

And that should make you wonder, I think, if maybe the better contrast with Trump isn’t one based on cultural dissent or strident ideology, but rather on the governing vision that’s basically nonexistent in Washington right now.

While O’Rourke was losing in Texas, for instance, Andrew Cuomo was quietly — if it can be said that he does anything quietly — cruising to a third term as governor of New York. A national figure like Joe Biden, a mayor like Mitch Landrieu, a lesser-known governor like John Hickenlooper or Deval Patrick — these are potential candidates with less glamour to take into a fight against Trump, but a solid command of governance.

This week’s results should at least start a debate inside the party about which way to go. Because while inspiration can get you tantalizingly close to a tsunami, sometimes a correction is all you need.

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