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I hate to say it, but we all might have to get used to saying “Speaker Boehner” pretty soon. But what is this going to mean — for Republicans, for Democrats, for President Barack Obama, and for the country at large? At this point, these questions are worth examination, because while Democrats may yet avert disaster in the midterms, denying the real possibility of a Republican House next year is now little better than wishful thinking, or (even worse) intentionally burying our collective heads in the sand.
I should start by saying that a Republican takeover of the House is by no means a foregone conclusion. Democrats might indeed stage an upset “victory” (in other words, not losing as much as has been prophesied) and retain a slim margin under Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But at this point, it seems more likely — from looking at the polls — that Republicans are going to pick up the net 39 seats that they need to grab power in the lower house of Congress.
Democratic chances of retaining control look far better over in the Senate, thanks to some Republican primary-winners who are proving themselves “not quite ready for primetime” (yes, Delaware, I am looking in your direction…). But this may prove to be largely immaterial, since neither side is poised to grab 60 seats — and the Republicans have now successfully made 60 votes the minimum threshold that must be reached to pass any legislation. Which means that either party is going to be able to use the same tactics for the next two years (as Republicans have used in the past two years) to virtually gridlock the Senate, no matter who is nominally in control. Even if the Democrats do retain a slight edge in the Senate, it’s going to be even harder for them to get anything done with more Republicans in the chamber.
But the makeup of the Senate is a subject for a different day. Today, we’re more concerned with what would happen if the Republicans do gain control of the House. The first result would be — as must have made some readers shudder in this article’s first sentence — “Speaker of the House John Boehner.” I seriously doubt that Boehner would face a leadership challenge if Republicans take the House; meaning “Speaker Boehner” should be seen as almost a foregone conclusion if the House goes Republican. No matter how many Tea Party candidates win in the House, I just don’t see “Speaker Ron Paul” in an upset leadership vote, for instance.
The irony of the Democrats losing the House would be twofold, in my opinion. The first ironic result is that the House actually did a pretty good job for the last two years. They tackled tough legislation, Speaker Pelosi corralled very difficult votes, and they produced a flood of good bills. Unfortunately for them, the Senate refused to act on an astounding 420 bills which the House approved. If some of these had managed to make it through the Senate, the House Democrats might be in a better position right now, in terms of their chances of getting re-elected. The House Democrats acted, the Senate Democrats couldn’t produce, and the House Democrats are going to pay the price at the polls. Like I said, irony. Of course, this is the way the system is supposed to work, so it’s a built-in irony. The House is supposed to be “closer to The People” — meaning if they (or their party, in modern times) annoy the public, then they are the first to be voted out of office.
The second bit of irony is who, exactly, will pay the price in the House. Largely, it will be the “Blue Dog Democrats” who will be losing their seats. This is ironic because, to Democrats further to the Left, the Blue Dogs have been the problem all along. Lefties have been tearing their hair out at the Blue Dog’s timidity for the past two years now. Getting rid of the Blue Dogs has been a secret dream on the Left for a while. The only problem is, this dream scenario was supposed to happen by Progressives taking Blue Dogs out in the primaries — and not by Blue Dogs being voted out in favor of Republican candidates. But, either way, if the Blue Dogs (especially in the House, although there are a few Blue Dog senators who won’t be coming back, either) do bear the brunt of the Republican wave, then what’s left of the Democratic Party will be a lot more cohesive (and a lot more chastened about keeping the party together on critical issues, one hopes). This could eventually be a net positive for the Democratic Party, starting about a year from now, when they survey the landscape for the 2012 election cycle and decide which new congressional candidates to get behind. Especially since Rahm Emanuel will have nothing to do with making these decisions anymore.
But Democrats in the House will largely spend two years wandering in the wilderness of being the minority party, in the house of Congress where the majority absolutely rules the roost. Much more important to consider is what effect winning the House is going to have on the Republican Party. Because my guess is that this is going to be a very wild ride for them.
Republicans, in general, tend to overestimate their “voter mandate” when they win at the polls. Democrats, in contrast, tend to underestimate their mandate, but that’s a whole different subject. Republicans, abetted by the mainstream media, will be crowing about how the country “has moved Right” and “has given us a mandate to do everything we want to do” and similar-sounding themes. Stripped of window-dressing, they’ll be saying: “America loves Republicans, so just watch us now!” There’s only one problem with this — it’s not exactly true. Pundits (the ones who actually pay attention to what’s going on out there) have been saying for a while now that this is going to be a very odd election, because while midterms normally result in losses for the “In” party, this usually goes hand-in-hand with the “Out” party being much more well-liked by the public at the same time. This is simply not true right now for Republicans. President Barack Obama’s approval rating is in the high 40s. The Democratic Party’s approval rating is lower than Obama’s. But the Republican Party’s approval rating is the most dismal of all (unless you count Congress as a whole, which is truly scraping the bottom of the approval barrel), clocking in lower than even the Democratic Party’s approval. In other words, the voters are about to vote into power a party that they like less than the party which is currently in power — which may not be completely unprecedented in American electoral politics, but is decidedly unusual even if it isn’t. Republican politicians, however, are going to assume that the voters love them and (by extension) love their plans for the future, and are going to forcefully act as if this were true. This may lead them into some serious trouble, but it’ll take awhile for them to realize it (that’s my guess, anyway).
This is going to lead to some serious overreach by a Republican House. The voters are finally going to see what, exactly, Republicans would do about the deficit, about the federal budget, and about taxes. Republicans, by taking the House, are going to be forced into “having a dog in the fight” instead of being able to merely criticize from the sidelines as the “Party of ‘No’,” because they’re going to be the ones to produce legislation and budgets, instead of having the luxury of just opposing everything the other party comes up with.
This is going to lead to some serious problems within the Republican Party. Putting aside the question of what happens in the Senate for now, the House Republicans are going to be expected to get some things done. But even before looking deeper, this is going to cause a very basic problem for Republicans. Say President Obama works out a moderate bill on something (a budget bill, for example) with the Senate (no matter who is in control). The House Republicans will be faced with a choice: accept a compromise which has already passed with some Republican support in the Senate, or refuse to budge one inch on their hardliners’ goals. If they do compromise, they’re going to “hand President Obama a political victory” (which, it goes without saying, they’re going to be loath to do). They’re also going to absolutely enrage their Tea Party supporters (otherwise known as “the base” for Republicans from this election cycle onwards) — who will decry any sort of legislative compromise whatsoever as “surrender.”
The “Tea Party/Republican base” faction is in the midst of an intraparty insurgency. They are, ideologically at least, taking over the Republican Party as a whole. The establishment Republicans are downright terrified of these interlopers, because they have seen what the Tea Party folks can do at the polls, for better or for worse. Incumbent Republican Party politicians are going to live in fear of saying anything the Tea Partiers will denounce as insufficiently devoted to their revolutionary cause (as they see it). Meaning that, if the Republicans do take the House, Speaker Boehner is not really going to be driving the bus — the Tea Partiers are. Boehner, it should be noted, is not exactly thrilled about this turn of events, but he’s going to have to get used to it.
This is going to be an even bigger problem for Republicans than the Blue Dogs were for the Democrats. The Blue Dogs, remember, were the ones pushing the Democrats against giving red meat to their base. The Tea Partiers are going to be the ones absolutely demanding such red meat. The dynamic is the opposite of what Democrats had to contend with, in other words.
Now, Tea Partiers may be somewhat mollified by Republicans launching investigations against the Obama administration at the drop of an innuendo on Fox News, but that will likely prove to not be enough for them (although they certainly will enjoy the sideshow). Because, while entertaining to them, this is not what they consider “political red meat” at all. The real showdown is going to be over the budget. Republicans are going to have to produce some budgetary legislation which must be vetted by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, who puts official numbers on these things. And the numbers are virtually guaranteed to disappoint one faction of the Tea Party or another. Either the deficit is going to keep going up, or the tax cuts aren’t going to be as big. But the real backlash isn’t going to come from the Tea Party faction, but from the public at large. Because they’re going to find out how serious Republicans are about “cutting government spending,” and it’s not going to be pretty for Republicans. To significantly cut the deficit, Republicans will have to go beyond crowd-pleasing statements and cut not just “fraud, waste, and abuse,” but actually cut some sacred government programs to the bone. And this is where the Republican propensity to overstate their mandate is going to smack them in the face — when they attempt to slash Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Pentagon. Because those four are really where the big money is in the federal budget, and “attacking the deficit” means attacking at least one (if not all) of these programs — which is going to annoy a large portion of the public.
Establishment Republicans realize this. Fire-breathing freshmen House members may not. And they may have a Republican civil war over the issue, when it comes time to draw up the budget next year. If they follow this road to its inevitable conclusion, we’re going to see a repeat of Newt Gingrich’s “shut down the government” — as House Republicans dig in their heels, refuse to compromise, and also refuse to pass “continuing resolutions” which keep the government checks from bouncing while politicians play games on Capitol Hill. For those too young to remember the first time this happened, it didn’t turn out too good politically for Newt and his House Republicans. History may repeat itself in this regard.
Of course, a lot depends on how President Obama handles things. President Clinton was seen by the public as the “winner” of the showdown with Newt, but that’s largely because of the way he handled it. Obama would have to get a lot stronger in the veto-issuing category before this could happen, to be honest.
Even if we don’t face a government-closing showdown, how Obama reacts to a Republican House is also going to be interesting. Obama, to the Left’s dismay, really did believe in all the “bipartisan” talk early on. He may now have a chance to see whether it is possible, and what would result from such bipartisanship with a Republican House not willing to make many concessions. Will Obama cave, and give the Republican House everything it wants? Will he practice Clintonian “triangulation” of peeling off just enough Republicans to win a close vote? Will he attempt to move to the mythical “center” of American politics, as the entire mainstream media will be telling him to do?
These are open and perhaps unanswerable questions at this point, but how the White House reacts to a Republican House is going to be a key ingredient in what happens to both (and to the whole country) in the next two years, and in the 2012 elections. The direction a new Republican House will take is easier to see than the direction the White House takes in response, at this point. But one thing I am sure of — they’d better be discussing this very question right now within the West Wing of the White House. Because while all Democratic politicians everywhere at this point (including Obama) are absolutely politically required to present a public face of confidence that Democrats will retain the House, those who don’t have to speak publicly are surely looking at the numbers which confront them, one week away from the election. And those numbers show quite clearly that the chances right now of Republicans taking the House are greater than the chances that Democrats will retain power. Meaning that it may stick in the throat, but Obama better at least be contemplating right now how exactly he’s going to deal with Speaker Boehner come January.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant