OK, so it’s official: we’re a divided nation. We knew that already, of course, but whereas for the last two years we’ve been nominally a Democratic-majority nation, with a vocal Republican minority, now the electoral process has finally caught up to the popular sentiment. The House of Representatives has gone Republican, while Democrats may hang on (barely) to the Senate. The only real remaining question is how this new alignment -- one that more accurately reflects the mood of the country -- will actually govern. If it can.
The new Congress will now face off against a revamped Obama administration, which will itself feature many new faces. Both sides will seek to portray the other as obstructionist and negligent in the face of high unemployment and slow growth. The Obama administration, finally facing an adversary in power, rather than a maddening nay-saying screech in the political wilderness, will seek to capture something of President Truman’s success in 1948 in portraying the Republican House as a “do-nothing” body that simply blocks everything the president proposes (a resumption of the Bush tax cut fight is likely to be the first test). The House, by contrast, will say “we’re the un-do Republican Congress,” says Rick Tyler, a longtime aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and a founding director of his conservative group, Renewing American Leadership. “We’re going to undo health care, undo high taxes, everything the Democrats did the last four years” going back to their 2006 takeover of the House and Senate.
Barring another terrible terrorist act or a new war, the dominant agenda over the next two years will continue to be set by the new force in American politics, the tea party movement. (Remember when it was Barack Obama?) In other words, it will be mainly about the size of government. This will be, in effect, a proxy battle over the real issue on everyone’s minds: slow growth and high unemployment. (The Republicans think the only way to get past these problems is smaller government—flying in the face of most economic wisdom; the Obama-ites will try to add more stimulus, education, and training programs while squaring the circle with deficit-cutting proposals.)
Both sides will be trying to learn lessons from their past histories: The Republican House led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will seek to avoid the fate of the leader of the last major GOP insurgency in 1994, when a certain amount of hubris on the part of Gingrich left him blamed for the government shutdown. Obama will try to be as politically nimble as Bill Clinton and as fiery and leaderly as Truman.
At the same time, however, the circumstances of this election are so novel on so many levels that history may not be very predictive. Boehner doesn’t want to be a Gingrichian revolutionary -- to go so far in demanding tax and spending cuts that he forces another shutdown. And in 1994 Gingrich was leading the GOP insurgency. Now Boehner is following the insurgency; he will have to be careful not to rile the hair-trigger anger or test the tenuous loyalty of his new tea party-engendered base. He may even face a leadership challenge or two, especially if he doesn’t move quickly enough to slash government spending.
In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., already must confront an open leadership challenge from within his ranks, from Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has mustered a large bloc of tea party-aligned acolytes behind him. “Jim DeMint is in the catbird seat,” says Tyler. “He went up against his leadership, and recruited candidates he liked with the intent of changing the Republican Party. It’s going to be a constitutional gutcheck. We were elected to rein in government. This bloc effectively could block any legislation they don’t like.” New Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky quickly put down his own marker Tuesday night, calling for a “tea party caucus” inside the GOP caucus.
Still, neither side will want to enter into a political suicide pact in the face of grim economic numbers; both will want to be seen doing something. In the end, victory in public perceptions will fall to whichever party succeeds in putting the other in a box. Obama will try to exploit the fractiousness in Republican ranks, but the Republicans can manage to turn the tables on the president if he is seen as holding up House or Senate legislation.
A first test is likely to come with the issue that tied the Congress up in knots just before the election recess: whether to extend upper-tier Bush tax cuts that benefit families and small businesses earning more than $250,000 a year. Obama and his team have stood firm in rejecting this extension.
“Hopefully the election will mean something,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of the GOP leadership who was not up for reelection this year, told National Journal Tuesday. “And an increasing number of Democrats who were candidates have said they agreed with Republicans in saying it doesn’t make any sense to raise taxes on anybody. Hopefully the president will listen to that.” But Obama may not, even if he has to veto, especially if he can portray the Republicans as standing against the middle-class tax cuts in a desperate effort to retain the upper-class ones. It will likely be the first of several games of chicken over the next two years.