Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Losing control of the Senate no big deal? Really? -- Oct. 9, 2014 column


After months of dire warnings about what will befall President Obama and Democrats if they lose control of the Senate next month, something odd happened.

The opinion tide turned. The new take, even among progressives, is that a GOP-controlled House and Senate wouldn’t be so bad after all. Not for Democrats, who might emerge stronger in 2016, and not even for Obama, who might get more accomplished.

But make no mistake: Such revisionist pre-history can only hurt Democratic Senate candidates in tight races. 

Last November, Obama told worried Senate Democrats at a private White House meeting that losing the Senate would make his last two years as president unbearable, Politico reported.

“I don’t really care to be president without the Senate,” Obama said.

Back then, the litany of egregious actions congressional Republicans would likely take was long: Repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act -- for real. Dismantle protections for consumers and the environment. Block Obama’s nominations to federal agencies, boards and the Supreme Court. Possibly impeach the president.

At the very least, Senate Republicans would open more investigations into the Obama administration, especially the Benghazi affair. It’s easy to imagine split screen coverage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a hearing and at presidential campaign events.

Sky-is-falling scenarios are common for both parties in the run-up to elections. Voters sometimes need a dose of fright as motivation to get to the polls

But now, with time dwindling and polls showing a Republican takeover of the Senate likely, the idea seemingly has lost its fear factor.   

One of the first silver lining pieces appeared Aug. 25 on the liberal-leaning American Prospect’s website. “Here’s the good news for Democrats: Even if Republicans take the Senate this year, Democrats will almost certainly take it back in 2016,” blogger Paul Waldman wrote.

Then, “Good News, Democrats, You’re Going to Lose!” trumpeted a headline in Politico on Sept. 30 over a column  that began:  “If the latest round of polls is accurate, Democrats will lose nearly every competitive Senate race, giving Republicans full control of Congress for the first time in 10 years. This is excellent news for Democrats.”

The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 7 proclaimed:  “Why a Senate Loss May Be a Win for Obama.” Columnist Gerald F. Seib wrote that eras when the Congress was completely controlled by one party and the White House by the other were marked by great productivity.

“And if you are a president yearning for elusive legislative achievements in the final two years of your term, anything that makes Washington more productive would be welcome, even if attaining some of that productivity required trimming your ideological sails,” Seib wrote.

We’ve not seen evidence that either Obama or Republicans will be inclined to capitulate on their principles, though. And Seib concedes that “Fights between Congress and the White House would erupt, brinksmanship would ensue, vetoes would be issued.”

Fun times.  

The Washington Post followed with “Could a Republican Senate actually help Obama?”

The Post’s Philip Bump reviewed legislative records of past Congresses on GovTrack and found that six of the 10 most productive Congresses since 1973 had a president of one party and Congress controlled by the other. But the Post didn’t delve into the content of those bills. How many merely named a post office or declared peach pie month?

Supposedly, when they’re in control, Republicans will lose their excuses for being a do-nothing Congress and will work with Obama on such important issues as immigration and the budget.  Or they’ll self-destruct.

Unless they don’t.  This is not the 1990s when Bill Clinton triangulated. If Republicans do win control, why would they then jettison the very obstructionist tactics they believe worked in their favor?

“If there is no public backlash against an utterly dysfunctional Congress and a near-complete lack of productivity, why rock the boat?” veteran Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic in March.  

In the last weeks of the campaign, Democrats should fight the impulse to downplay loss of the Senate. If Democratic voters believe ceding control to Republicans is OK, defeat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Democrats will have only themselves to blame if they’re singing the blues come January.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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