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Gwen’s Take: The midterms’ message

“I’ve been willing to compromise in the past, and I’m going to be willing to compromise going forward, on a whole range of issues.” — President Obama

“Tuesday’s election was not about Republicans. It was about the Democrats. They got a report card. It was an F.” — Sen. Mitch McConnell

These reflections fell from the lips of party leaders in the wake of a political midterm earthquake that hurt Democrats and strengthened Republicans — in 2010.

I went back and re-watched our analysis of the 2010 midterm elections, and was reminded that even political waves eventually crash on the shore.

It’s a huge deal, until it’s not.

That may be one reason why both Messrs. McConnell and Obama appeared so calm after Tuesday night’s massive Republican takeover. Both spoke easily about finding areas of agreement.

“I think my attitude about all this at this point is trust but verify,” McConnell said about the prospect of cooperating with the White House. “I mean, let’s see. The American people have spoken.”

The incoming Senate leader also warned that that the president would be waving a red flag in front of a bull if he chooses to take executive action on immigration reform.

The president said, without apparent acrimony, that he plans to do it anyway.

All in all the “I dare you” messages, delivered at dueling press conferences, came across as pretty mild.

“There are times where you’re a politician and you’re disappointed with election results,” Obama said when reporters pressed him to characterize the scale of the Democrats’ defeat. “But maybe I’m just getting older — I don’t know. It doesn’t make me mopey. It energizes me because it means that this democracy is working.”

(Wonder if that’s what defeated Senate incumbents Mark Udall and Kay Hagan were saying Wednesday?)

It fell to House Speaker John Boehner to add some spice to the proceedings. He reached for a fire analogy.

“When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself,” he said, referring to the president’s vow not to wait on immigration. “And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”

Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid remained suspiciously quiet.

There is a purpose to all of this casual cheer and ritual tough talk. The voters seem to have spent the past few election cycles telegraphing to their leaders that they should stop squabbling and get on with it already.

But political strategists are already gearing up for another big contest two years from now. And they know that they need to capitalize on conflict rather than cooperation, especially if they want to change the political calculus.

“[It] doesn’t mean that there are going to be daily renditions of Kumbaya sung on Pennsylvania Avenue,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conceded during the final minutes of a press briefing this week.

So enjoy a deep breath this week, as Republicans look for piecemeal ways to weaken the health care law, and Democrats test how far they can use the only lever they have left – the executive one – to force action on immigration reform and foreign policy.

Because soon enough, like it or not, the cage match will resume, only this time in the guise of a presidential campaign.

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