Why Taking Over the Senate Would Do Republicans a Lot of Good

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Over at the Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, Paul Waldman suggests that “taking over the Senate may not do Republicans much good.” This, Waldman argues, is because “if the Republicans do take the Senate, they won’t have a lot of time to savor the victory,” because “anything big and consequential on the Republican agenda would get vetoed,” and because the House and the Senate might become frustrated by their impotence and their difference and start bickering among themselves. If Obama is faced “with both houses controlled by the opposition,” Waldman concludes, “there’s nothing he’d rather see than them fighting with each other and passing only unrealistic bills that he can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.”

I will leave aside the temptation to suggest that Waldman is effectively proposing that Obama become a “hostage taker” and an “obstructionist,” and I’ll say this instead: Yes, Republicans will not be able to significantly (dare I say “fundamentally”) transform the country between now and 2016; yes, they will absolutely have their work cut out two years after the next election; yes, to the extent that this matters, they are not “united” across House and Senate. And despite this, their stewardship of the Senate could be extremely profitable.

For a start, a Republican-led upper house would kill the president’s appointment power for the remainder of his tenure, subjecting every single major personnel decision to GOP acquiescence. Personnel being policy, this is no small deal. Second, the days of Obama’s going in front of the country and complaining that a “small group of legislators” were holding up his agenda would be gone — forever. In the new environment, Obama would be the one out on a limb: during budget negotiations, when setting the legislative agenda, and when discussing Obamacare, the president would be the only center of power representing the progressive point of view. This matters. The shutdown was always folly, and I warned against it from the start. But were it not for Harry Reid, it would have gone rather differently I suspect. It really is a different thing to play the “we are being held up by one half of one house” game than it is to play the “I am at war with the entire Congress” game during negotiations — especially if Republicans buck the trend and, shock horror!, pass a budget. Obama knows this.

So, I suspect, does the Republican leadership, and I can’t help but feel that Waldman’s underlying question — “would Republicans be able to present a united front against President Obama, one that might actually accomplish any practical goals?” — is delivered more in the hope than the expectation that the answer is “no.” Waldman writes:

The senators accept that the ACA is law and are thinking about how they’d like to change it. The House members are coming up with another way to make a futile, symbolic shaking of their fists in the general direction of the White House. And this may offer a clue to how legislating would proceed in a Republican Congress. The House, still dominated by extremely conservative Republicans for whom any hint of compromise is considered the highest treason, could continue to pass one doomed bill after another, while the Senate tries to write bills that have at least some chance of ever becoming law.

Maybe. But I’m not sure how much this matters. Even if the different houses are at loggerheads as to how best to proceed, they all agree on one thing: That Obamacare is a disaster and it needs significant changes. How sure is Waldman that the purists are going to balk at the opportunity to, say, kill the individual mandate, or to present a bill that restore all previous plans, or that forces the president to abide by the timetable of the legislation that bears his name? How confident is he that the gutting-but-not-quite repealing bills that have passed the House in recent years won’t be resuscitated and pass happily through the Senate to be vetoed in public? I’m not so sure.

No, a Republican Congress can’t unilaterally repeal the Obama years and start over. But it can continue to hammer the president and whomever picks up the torch for the Democratic party from a position of power – much as the united Democratic Congress did between 2006 and 2008. At the moment, Harry Reid can ensure that nothing difficult ever reaches Obama’s desk. If the GOP takes the Senate, however, this dynamic changes completely. Bills to approve Keystone XL, make popular changes to Obamacare, and do anything else that polls well will be up for a signature or a veto (or a filibuster) – all backed up with a serious PR campaign. What will Obama do? And what will an aspiring 2016 candidate do? If Obama vetoes Keystone, does Hillary back him? Or does she snipe from the sidelines?

Finally, there are the less-easy-to-pin-down problems associated with being a president who isn’t running again, especially one whose signature legislation was sufficiently unpopular as to lose him control of both houses of Congress. It’s tough to put into words how this changes the political culture, but somehow it just does. British Prime Minister David Cameron had a brutal putdown for Tony Blair toward the end of Blair’s premiership. Introducing himself as the new Conservative leader, Cameron announced, “I want to talk about the future.” Then he turned to Blair and added: “You used to be the future once.” 

It stung, as it always does at this stage in the game.

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