The Midterms and Their Meaning

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 3, 2010

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While the results of last night’s midterm elections did not deliver everything that the Republicans asked for, they delivered enough. Republicans received more than the number of seats necessary to achieve a House majority, their numbers in the Senate have become respectable again (with the Democrats’ ability to break a filibuster now completely out the window), and they made significant gains in statehouses, and state legislatures. Any pretense that the Republican party is just a Southern political force is now completely gone, with Republicans now a powerful presence not just in the Southwest, but also in the Midwest as well, and with Republicans having achieved something of a beachhead in the Northeast.

In many ways, the election results are even more disastrous than the Obama Administration might have feared. The Republicans have taken control of one chamber of Congress, but not of both, which means that they cannot be said to have taken partial ownership of the federal government. This gives Republicans a place at the bargaining table, but does not remove the pressure on Senate Democrats and the White House to govern. From the base of operations they now have in the House, Republicans are able to more easily advance policy proposals, while at the same time slowing down, or stopping objectionable legislation. Additionally, the ability of majority House Republicans to command a bigger megaphone will allow them to put forth a platform designed to win hearts and minds in advance of the 2012 elections.

All of this having been written, there are risks for both sides in the aftermath of the elections. They follow below:

1. For the Republicans: Republicans may be tempted to believe that the outcome of the midterm elections represent a mandate. They certainly represent greater trust in Republicans, and a commensurate augmentation of Republican power, but the midterms may well be more the natural result of electoral volatility than a mandate for a particular party.

Including Barack Obama, the last three Presidents, and four out of the last five have lost at least one chamber of Congress. The days when it might have been said that members of Congress had safer seats than did members of the Soviet Politburo are over. This electoral volatility naturally comes with electoral capriciousness; in the aftermath of just about every election cycle, it has been thought that the defeated party had sustained an electoral calamity that might last for a generation or so . . . only for the defeated party to rise, Phoenix-like from the ashes. Thus, the Republicans recovered from the midterm defeats of 1982, the Democrats recovered from the Republican landslide of 1984, the Republicans recovered from the midterm defeats of 1986, the Democrats overcame a highly popular Republican President in 1992, the Republicans put a decisive end to Democratic one-party government in 1994, the Democrats came back from the dead in 1996, and nearly took the House in 1998, the Republicans found a way to beat the Vice President of a very popular Administration in 2000, and in 2002, reversed a party change by Jim Jeffords that lost them the Senate, the Democrats recovered from their Presidential and Congressional defeat in 2006, and re-achieved one-party government in 2008, and now, the Republicans have taken back the House.

One can look at all of this, and conclude that this last victory by the Republicans represents the truly decisive one. Or one can look at all of this, and conclude that it is likely that the worm may turn again, and quite soon, in the Democrats’ favor, which means that it behooves the Republicans to resist hubris.

They appear to be doing so. Last night, Speaker-to-be John Boehner refused to gloat or celebrate the evening’s results, stressing instead the need to get to work to help better the state of the American economy. Additionally, the Speaker-to-be appears to have learned the lessons of past Republican overreach–especially the overreach that came in the immediate aftermath of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. It may upset the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Will Saletan that Boehner is continuing to make sure that Republicans do nothing to expose themselves to a massive political attack from the Obama Administration, but one cannot fault Boehner from wanting to make sure that he does not repeat Newt Gingrich’s mistakes, and that rather, he emulates the approach Bill Clinton took; the approach that led to victory in a Presidential race a mere two years later–an approach that will allow the GOP a true chance to legislate if it is able to take the Senate, and the Presidency. Boehner’s approach is the right one, and I’ll endorse it by stating that I only exaggerate slightly when I write that Republicans ought to commit to passing only that legislation which is as popular as God, motherhood, the flag, and apple pie. Anything else would be mired in partisan gridlock, thanks to continued Democratic control of the Senate and the White House, and give the President a program to run against in 2012. The Republicans are not strong enough to coerce the Administration into passing everything, or even most of the things on their legislative wish list, and should not try. Rather, they should only put forth exceedingly popular legislation, and then dare the President and Senate Democrats to resist it, thus laying the groundwork for a future Republican Presidential nominee to take the case against Barack Obama to the voters in two years.

2. For the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats: Some have argued that the Obama Administration should emulate the triangulation approach that the Clinton Administration undertook in the aftermath of the 1994 midterm elections. This would likely be an error; unlike 1994, the Democrats still have the Senate, and President Obama needs to rally Democrats. President Clinton could more easily ditch a Democratic minority in both chambers to save his electoral skin. President Obama, however, still has a Democratic majority in the Senate that he needs to work with, and his fate is more closely tied to them.

As such, for the President, the best tactic is to initially make nice with the new House majority, and then, after a respectable period of time, attack it without mercy, emulating the strategy that Harry Truman adopted in the aftermath of the 1946 midterm elections. He can start by condemning the House Republican determination to play defense, referenced above (which is why the House Republicans do need to show that they are putting forth some legislative initiatives, but should not put forth controversial legislation for fear that it may give the White House and Congressional Democrats something to shoot at, and make a campaign issue of in 2012). The President and Congressional Democrats know that Republicans have profited mightily by forcing Democrats to take initiatives, while they gave Democrats nothing tangible to attack. They ought to know as well that House Republicans cannot hope to initiate significant changes without control of the Senate and the White House, which means that the strategic defensiveness practiced by Republicans will likely continue. They can only hope that Republicans get arrogant and overreach, thus allowing Democrats to regain their footing. If that doesn’t happen, voters may still conclude that despite the midterms, the Democrats’ continued control of both the White House and the Senate means that they can be held primarily responsible for any failings of government, and punish the Democrats accordingly in 2012.

An additional point: While Republicans may be disappointed that they did not win more seats in the Senate, while the nomination of flawed and unready Tea Party candidates in both Delaware and Nevada–among other places–meant that the Republicans gave up the opportunity for easy wins that might have made a great November 2 even better, Republicans can take pride in an election that may help bring about smarter trade policies, and political reinforcements for a potential Republican Presidential candidate the party ought to be proud to nominate, if it has the chance. Again, the Republican capacity to institute change is somewhat limited, given that the Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But while Republicans ought not to overreach, and ought to continue the policy of practicing smart, defensive politics that has brought them this far, they can use this year’s victories, to establish the groundwork for a true governing coalition that can come about with future electoral victories.

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