The Drum (ABC Online)

By John Barron

The US mid-term elections have given America the equivalent of a hung parliament, but unlike Australia and the UK earlier this year, there is no obvious basis for coalition-building.

As expected, the House of Representatives has swung to the right, giving the Republican Party a solid majority. In claiming victory, the incoming speaker John Boehner pulled a switch on Barack Obama's 2008 rallying cry, when he called on the president to "change course and make the changes they are demanding".

The chairman of the Democratic Committee and close friend of Obama, Tim Kaine, struck a defiant note; "Tonight, voters sent a message that change has not happened fast enough."

The Republicans can celebrate finally being on the right end of the third consecutive "change election" - at last the anti-incumbent sentiment played in their favour. They also have a fistfull of new senate seats and governor's masions, and renewed hope they can reclaim the White House in two years.

Yet many Democrats are breathing a slight sigh of relief.

They may have lost the House but they managed to hold the Senate, and more importantly, they have the keys to the White House until 2012 at least.

Some prize Democrat senate scalps, like majority leader Harry Reid, eluded the Republicans grasp. Tea Party-backed Republican Sharron Angle's failure to defeat the uncharismatic, aging Reid, in Nevada - a state burdened by 14 per cent unemployment - raises questions about candidate selection.

And the Tea Party's choice of Christine "of course I'm not a witch" O'Donnell threw away a sure Republican senate pickup in Delaware.

Not even $150 million of her own money could buy former eBay executive Meg Whitman the governorship in California against warmed-over liberal Jerry Brown (she should have bid $150,000,001.00).

On the other side of the nation, New York stayed deep blue, and Democrat Andrew Cuomo's elevation to the governorship may be the first step towards a White House bid in 2016.

But that's all in the future, right now the Democrats must be deeply worried about losing so much ground in the mid-west; Indiana, Wisiconsin and Iowa swinging away, and president Obama must have winced a little when his old senate seat in Illinois fell into the hands of Republican Mark Kirk.

For Republicans, they will be quietly fretting about why many of their candidates backed by the Tea Party did well in congressional races, but less well in state-wide races for the Senate and a number of governorships.

The conservative establishment is already having nightmares about a Tea Party-backed presidential bid from someone like Sarah Palin that gives them an unelectable candidate in 2012.

In the meantime, it is a classic case of competing mandates in Washington, and potentially a recipe for gridlock.

Already president Obama is being urged to "shift to the political centre" - to do as Bill Clinton did after he suffered massive losses in the 1994 mid-terms and abandon more divisive agenda items like health care and gays serving openly in the military.

But even some Clinton insiders, like former labor secretary Robert Reich, say the political centre just doesn't exist - shift to the centre and you'll find you are all alone.

American politics is more like a doughnut.

And this is clearly a problem for any attempts at bipartisanship.

When the democrats enjoyed a 60-40 Senate majority, there was no need to compromise. Which was just as well because there were only one or two moderate Republicans who might have ever considered a compromise. Usually when a chamber like the Senate swings back to closer to 50-50 that means you'll get more moderates in swinging electorates prepared to cut a deal and cross the floor.

But not this time.

Tea Party-backed freshmen Republican senators like Rand Paul from Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida immediately become the least likely to join with the Democrats. And Democrats like Evan Bayh of Indiana who frequently voted with the Republicans saw the writing on the wall and quit politics this year in disgust, while liberals capable of bipartisandship like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin got creamed.

The doughnut hole just got bigger.


John Barron presents Inside America on ABC NewsRadio, Sundays at 12:00pm (AEDT). He is also a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.