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America’s Midterm Elections: What Next?

Tags: Obama , Political Party , Politics , Election , United States

Saunders, Paul J.

November 07, 2014

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The Republican victory in the November 4 midterm elections will have major implications for the strategies adopted in the 2016 presidential campaign. The central question for President Obama during the remainder of his term, notes Paul Saunders, is whether he will adopt a conciliatory approach to the Republicans in Congress to pass key legislation.

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America’s November 4 midterm elections produced a decisive win for the Republican Party. As of the morning of November 5, Republicans have won control of the Senate—prevailing in 10 of 13 contested Senate races—and will hold at least 52 of 100 seats.

At the same time, the GOP appears to have gained at least 10 seats in the House of Representatives as well as some surprising governors’ mansions, including in Maryland and Massachusetts, both of which are heavily Democratic states. What comes next? That will depend on the dynamics inside the two parties and on some important decisions by President Barack Obama.

Lessons for Democrats

Democrats have faced a major defeat. But what lessons will they draw from the experience? The answer to that question will drive actions by Democrats in Congress during the final two years of Mr. Obama’s term. It will also shape the conduct of the emerging Democratic candidates who hope to succeed him in the White House.

Thus far, many if not most Democrats appear tempted—not incorrectly—to blame their election losses on a combination of intense anger at the president among Republican voters and apathy or disillusionment with Mr. Obama among Democrats disappointed by his performance. The result will be a significantly weakened president for whom Democrats in Congress are unlikely to do things that might risk their jobs in the 2016 election. Mr. Obama’s ability to influence who wins the Democratic nomination in 2016 will be similarly diminished.

At the same time, it may be dangerous for some leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, to assume that distance from Mr. Obama will solve their political problems. One aspect of the Maryland governor’s race that was particularly striking for those in the Washington area was the extent to which the losing Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, was relying on television advertisements featuring a strong endorsement from former President Bill Clinton. While Brown appeared to have been too complacent about the threat from his Republican rival, Governor-Elect Larry Hogan, this also raises questions about the Clintons’ continuing political appeal. Taking into account that Hillary Clinton already lost the Democratic nomination once—to President Obama—she does not look like a guaranteed winner in two years.

On the Republican side, many will likely also recognize that the president’s unpopularity played an important part in their many victories. However, some will see other explanations, including the party’s sharper message, on one hand, and its success in fielding establishment candidates who could win broad appeal, on the other. The tension between these two lessons reflects underlying tension between the establishment and Tea Party wings in the party, both of which may emerge emboldened after the election. Whether House Speaker John Boehner and presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to keep these two factions together will be a test.

For Mr. Obama, the central question is whether he will adopt a conciliatory approach to the new Republican Congress to pass significant legislation. Doing so could produce important accomplishments and strengthen the president’s legacy, but it will not be easy—and it could make him even more unpopular among Democrats who might not appreciate the compromises he might be forced to make. Conversely, it would throw down a gauntlet to the Republicans, challenging a party that many perceive as doing little other than opposing the president to make its own compromises.

Immigration, Energy, and Trade

Either way, President Obama and the Republican Congress will not have more than a year to accomplish whatever they can together. By late 2015, with the 2016 primaries approaching and new congressional campaigns beginning, each will have diminished flexibility. What can they accomplish during that year? Some of the biggest issues on the agenda are immigration, energy, and trade.

On immigration, both parties want to do something for a combination of practical and political reasons. While the issue is a complex one, a deal seems plausible. With respect to energy policy, the practical imperatives are probably stronger—America is missing significant opportunities for economic growth, greater energy security, and accelerated innovation—but there is less political pressure to act. Trade, and particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership, could be another possibility if Republicans are prepared to give the administration greater negotiating authority combined with broad parameters of an acceptable deal.

Iran and Russia are also likely to be on the agenda. The November 24 deadline for an agreement with Tehran is approaching rapidly. If the P5+1 countries and Iran reach a deal, which appears unlikely but possible, President Obama will probably have to roll back some of the US sanctions on Iran that depend on either executive orders or, alternatively, executive branch certifications to Congress.

Similarly, if the P5+1 and Iran agree to extend the talks again, it will mean continuing current sanctions relief. If the GOP wants to make this a political issue, party leaders will have every opportunity to do so. But that will not make it any easier to do other business with the White House.

At the same time, the administration appears to be looking for a way out of a deeper confrontation with Russia. That will also require winding down sanctions (all of which are based on executive orders) if it is to succeed. This would be another political opportunity for Republicans if they choose to seize it.

The new Republican Congress will not convene until late January, so President Obama and Republican leaders have over two months to consider their options and begin making plans. Until then, they can signal their intent in public statements—Senator McConnell has already offered an olive branch to the White House—and in their actions during an expected lame duck session of the outgoing Congress before the end of 2014. The next few months will be an interesting time in Washington.

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