Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014 Midterm Election Post-Mortem: What's Next?

Now that the votes have been counted, the tears have been shed, the champagne has been consumed, and the unemployment insurance claims filed it is time to consider what the results mean for government and governing in America over the next two years.  I'll start with a look at the House of Representatives, the Senate, and then the executive branch.

The House of Representatives

As of November 9th the GOP controls 244 seats in the House to 184 for the Democrats with seven races still undecided.  A quick look at the NY Times big board indicates that the GOP is likely to capture five of those undecided seats.  That will put them right around 250 seats, their largest caucus since Herbert Hoover was president.  Archie Bunker would be proud.  Does the increased majority make it more likely the House GOP starts governing again?  I think it does and here's why:

John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker and Majority Leader in the House, are for the most part moderate establishment politicians.  They're not obstructionists like some of their fellow bomb-throwing extremists who demanded a shut down of the federal government in 2013 and threatened to allow the nation to default on its sovereign debt.  Boehner and McCarthy are conservatives without a doubt but they are conservatives who want to see Washington work efficiently.  Sure, they live in a fictional bubble where smaller government is possible and Big Bird loses his head but, hey, you have to dream big in order to keep waking up every day, right?

Seriously, the larger majority in the House for Boehner allows him to do something he has not been able to do since being elected Speaker in 2010...tell the Tea Party to take a hike and get with the program or become irrelevant.  The question is whether he will do it or not.  My bet is he will and we will see a much more productive House in 2015 and 2016.  We might even see some major legislation emerge such as immigration reform and tax reform.  To be sure, it will reflect Republican priorities so Boehner and McCarthy will have to do some negotiating with the president if they want it to become law.  I think they'll find a way to get it done.  The alternative is to go into the 2016 presidential election as the party that controlled Congress for two years and did nothing.  Given the different electorate we are likely to see in 2016 I do not think that is a very good strategy.  I suspect Boehner and McCarthy would agree with that assessment.  Had the Republican House such a majority in 2014 I suspect the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate would have been brought to the floor of the House and passed with bipartisan support and then signed into law by President Obama.

The Senate

It appears right now the GOP will net nine seats in the Senate, which will put them at 54.  That's not enough to end a filibuster if a the Democratic minority decides to play the obstructionism card the way the GOP did for the past four years.   There are a core group of institutionalists within the minority that will prevent obstruction from becoming the norm for the next two years.  Further, the Democrats have nothing to lose and everything to gain by working with newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to find areas of common ground to move policy forward.  They likely will not get everything they want but history shows that Democrats have been much more willing to compromise in order to govern than the GOP has in recent years.  As of now, I see no evidence to indicate that will change in the 114th Congress.  The wild card is Harry Reid, the presumptive minority leader.  Reid has the potential to make life hell for the GOP if he wants to.  I wouldn't blame him if he did after what he has been through for the last four years but eventually the time comes to stop playing tit for tat and acting like a grown up.  Perhaps both McConnell and Reid will realize that the time has arrived.  Otherwise they both ought to retire to some Kentucky stud farm.

Taking control of the Senate also means that Republicans can no longer point fingers at the Democrats for failing to pass a budget, ignoring the minority, and all the other ills that Harry Reid has been accused of passing on to the country.  The GOP will have to stand or fall in 2016 based upon its own performance.  America has given the party a chance to prove it can govern.  Govern it must or 2016 will see a return of a Democratic Senate, though the odds are somewhat longer of that happening if the GOP does indeed have 54 seats.  Donkeys would need to net four seats and the presidency in 2016 or five seats if the GOP wins the presidency.

The President

In some ways, losing control of Congress has got to be a relief for the president.  He is now free to work with Republicans without regard to what Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi wants.  The major players for the president now become John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  Sure, that doesn't mean they'll sit around holding hands, sipping Kentucky Bourbon, and singing Kumbaya.  But it does mean the president has an incentive to accomplish some things over his final two years in office.  If the president is wise he will employ the triangulation strategy that worked so well for Bill Clinton.  In essence, President Obama will attempt to co-opt some of the Republicans priorities in the next Congress, which allows him to get the credit when they enact what is essentially their agenda.  Such a strategy only goes so far, however.  It is unlikely the president will give on his core principles, which is sure to setup a showdown with the new Republican Congress.

Moving Forward

The takeover of the Senate by Republicans may well be a blessing in disguise for the president and the Democratic Party.  As I said, if the GOP fails to govern for the next two years it benefits the Democrats in 2016.  Using a spatial analysis approach, what matters most over the next two years are the pivot points for the major players.  Pivot points reflect the optimal position of the 218th member of the House, the 51st (or 60th) vote in the Senate, and the preferred position of the president.  The larger majority in the House may mean the 218th vote position has moved slightly right or slightly left from where it was in 2013-14.  If it has moved to the right (due to greater Tea Party strength) then the next two years will be an exercise in brutal futility as there will be little ground for compromise.  If the pivot point for the 218th member of the House has moved slightly left (due to greater moderate strength among new members) then there may be more room for deals to be struck with the Senate and president.

The pivot points in the Senate have shifted significantly to the right with the GOP taking control.  The 51st vote now rests with the 4th least conservative Republican as opposed to the 4th least liberal Democrat.  That means John McCain or Lisa Murkowski is likely to hold the 51st vote on items that can be passed on a simple majority vote.  If 60 votes are required due to a Democratic filibuster (or threat thereof) the 60th vote will likely come from Jeanne Shaheen or Michael Bennet (40th most liberal).

The president's pivot point is likely to also shift rightward.  Despite the rhetoric of many conservative Republicans many of President Obama's actual policies have been quite conservative from the tax cuts implemented in 2009-2011 to the transfer of wealth from individual citizens to big insurance companies under the ACA, which was modeled on a plan first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Since Obama has shown little hesitancy to move to the right when a deal could be struck with the House leadership I expect him to continue to do the same in 2015-16.  Only now the deals will be between Obama, Boehner, and McConnell.  If Boehner and McConnell can reach agreement then the president is likely to come along unless it involves a gutting of Obamacare or any of his other signature accomplishments.  The most likely major agreements are on immigration reform and tax reform in the next two years.  There will also likely be some tweaks to Obamacare but unless the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional it is here to stay.

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