Conventional wisdom says the Obama administration is effectively toast if Republicans capture the Senate this fall. I’ve peddled it myself, and I’m not certain it’s wrong. But here are a few reasons why it might be:
His agenda is dead anyway. What the moral-equivalence mainstream vaguely calls “dysfunction” is really a poisonous dynamic in which compromise, the mere scent of it, politically lifts Obama and splits Republicans. Of immigration, Carl Hulse writes this morning:
Republicans knowledgeable about the issue said immigration was not yet completely off the table. Instead, they said, reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.
This is why new gun regulations were never going to pass. Or tax reform. Or tweaks to Obamacare. Or an extension of unemployment insurance. Looking back, it’s obvious that Congress would pass nothing of any significance after November 2010. This is a pitfall of divided government. You can blame James Madison if you like. (Garry Wills once made a provocative case that our notion of Madisonian checks and balances is so much mythology—an argument for another day.)
Arguably the only thing that President Obama and Congress have accomplished since the GOP House takeover is a sharp reduction in short-term budget deficits. Neither party has benefited politically from this accomplishment. Nor has the economy improved appreciably. Rather, it has probably been dragged down. (One day, historians will look on the period of 2011-13 and unanimously conclude it was utter madness.) Consequently, both sides have wisely given up on debt and deficits for the meantime.
There is the issue of judicial and executive branch appointments. But the heavy lift on those probably has already taken place.
Things may actually improve slightly under a unified GOP Congress. Look at it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, their next prize, obviously, will be the White House. That’s a different ballgame altogether—a bigger, browner electorate. Suddenly the imperative to obstruct the Obama agenda begins to recede. A different incentive structure will take shape: the party will have to govern, or at least appear as though it’s trying. As Hulse writes in the Times, some Republicans “believe it would be smarter to wait until after the midterms and pursue immigration in 2015 leading up to the presidential election,
when Republicans will be more motivated to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters. If the midterm goes their way, they will be strengthened in Congress.
The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP desperately wants an immigration bill. Obama desperately wants an immigration bill. With control of both the House and Senate, the GOP could write a bill that’s more to its liking than the dead-in-the-water bill the Senate passed last summer. And Obama will have no choice but to sign it. It’s the last feather in the cap of his legislative legacy, with the White House now set to pursue the Podesta strategy on unilateral executive action.
If it takes losing the Senate to pass immigration, Obama should welcome it. Come 2017, he’ll be working on his memoirs and running a foundation.
Speaking of the next presidential campaign…
“Republican Congress” will make for a juicy target in ’16. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had great fun turning the moderate Sen. Bob Dole into the sidecar villain of Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s little reason to think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or, ahem, she turns out to be, won’t be able to repeat the trick.
If, however, the trick proves unrepeatable—if the attack line that Republicans are extremist refuseniks loses its punch—it will have been due to some kind of thawing in the great cold war between Obama and Republicans. It will have been due to something like, say, the passage of immigration reform (see point two above), plus one or two other major compromise measures. Which, as far as Obama is concerned, would be all to the good.
Put it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, the prospects for getting something through Congress may brighten for Obama. And if they don’t brighten, his frustration—and the country’s—will ultimately redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who is faced with a uniformly depressing and horrendous array of potential GOP contenders.