Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be the luckiest politician in America right now – not just for his surprisingly comfortable reelection victory, but for the opportunity he now has to reposition himself as a born-again centrist and accomplish big things as the tie-breaking force between the Obama administration and a solidly Republican House of Representatives.
For all the tea party hype, the Senate looks like an awfully pragmatic body after Tuesday’s results – and a right-of-center body as well, despite the likely six-seat Democratic margin.
It will include many Democrats who are conservative or who will be up for reelection in 2012 in Republican-friendly states. They likely won’t want to be seen as a roadblock to GOP legislation on tax-cutting and budget-balancing bills.
In West Virginia, Sen.-elect Joe Manchin will be voting more like a Republican for the next two years if he wants to win reelection in a deeply conservative state. And there will be a host of other Democratic senators in Republican-leaning states up for reelection in 2012. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia campaigned like a conservative Democrat in his 2006 campaign, but voted more along more partisan lines. That’s likely to change if he seeks a second term. And Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is also bound to shift his votes rightward, likely facing a tough challenge from Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will also want to show they can work with their Republican colleagues and campaign on a bipartisan message in two years – especially Nelson, who should be cowed by Rubio’s landslide victory in Florida, where independents broke decisively for Republicans.
And the Republican class of freshmen is an awfully pragmatic group with a record of working across the aisle: Illinois’ Mark Kirk is an unabashed centrist who broke with his party on Iraq, stem cell research, and federal spending during the Bush administration. Ohio’s Rob Portman, while conservative, has a great reputation with Democrats and plenty of experience negotiating bipartisan deals as former Trade Representative for the Bush administration. He carried independents by 37 points over Democrat Lee Fisher.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven has plenty of experience working effectively with an all-Democratic congressional delegation, and he will be entering the Senate with sky-high approval ratings for his effective governance in his home state.
The big losers: Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, who all ran well to the right of their state’s electorates and were decisively rejected by voters in a Republican wave election.
So despite all the talk of gridlock, Democrats have a real opportunity to move to the center and work to accomplish significant legislation. Reid has the opportunity to rebrand himself as a centrist willing to support some Republican initiatives on tax cuts, free trade, education, and working to fix at least some elements of a flawed health care law. Reid could be the bridge between the White House and the House – essentially the Clinton-like triangulator in this unique triangle.
I’m not holding my breath that this will actually occur. A senior Democratic Senate leadership aide expressed the same sentiments – that the Senate provides Democrats with a golden opportunity to show they can be pragmatic and work with both sides – but added that the prevailing post-election sentiment looks like it’s headed in the other direction, that most Democrats want to use their majority to defend Obama, block Republican legislation in the House, and not look like they’re acquiescing to GOP demands.
Republicans are sounding a partisan note as well. At a Heritage Foundation speech today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was downright pugnacious, saying that he expects to have a “functional” Republican majority in the Senate thanks to the presence of moderate Democrats. That public boast isn’t going to encourage Democrats to seek compromise.
And with an outspoken Democratic base blaming the White House for not being aggressive enough and the results leaving Democrats with a disproportionately liberal wing in the House, it will be a challenge to find much of a spirit of compromise.
That certainly was the implicit message from President Obama at his press conference Wednesday. The president sounded a conciliatory note, but seemed blind to the possibility that his policies expanding the government's reach contributed to those historic losses. Even the Democratic National Committee, in a rare admission Thursday morning, acknowledged that health care “played a role in Congress’ low approval rating,” though it still laid most of the blame on the economy.
There are plenty of opportunities for the Senate to take the lead in working with Republicans on important policy issues. If the party’s Senate leadership has the political will to take on the teachers’ unions, there’s as much momentum as ever for an education bill that would expand school choice and merit pay for teachers. (Education Secretary Arne Duncan was one of the few Democratic voices not sounding defeated in the wake of the GOP landslide.)
The president’s trip to Asia could provide a bipartisan opening for a U.S.-Korea free trade agreement if enough Democrats are willing to swallow the anti-business rhetoric and fear-mongering that predominated in the final week of the campaign.
And most imminently, Senate Democrats could lead the way for a compromise on extending all of the Bush tax cuts, by either raising the dollar threshold, or agreeing to keep them until the economy grows at a healthier pace.
The key player in this political love triangle is the man whose political fate hung by a thread just a week ago, one whose political approval ratings are as low as any victorious incumbent. But if he’s willing to play as much ball with Republicans over the next two years as with the White House, he could be in a position to exemplify Americans’ clear desire for hope and change.