There has been a wealth of speculation this week about what will happen in Washington after the election. Whatever happens on Election Day, it is extremely likely that the Republicans will make enough gains to send a strong signal to D.C. How that signal will impact the political process is subject to much interpretation.
With the possibility looming that Congress set to be shaken up in ways not seen for at least fifteen years, perhaps as long as half a century, there has been some speculation on House and Senate Majority and Minority Leadership changes. Politico ran a story questioning the staying power of Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner and asking where his Republican challengers may come from. Also, should Sen. Harry Reid lose his close election, who would replace him as Democratic leader in the Senate? For political observers, inside-the-beltway machinations are interesting but do not affect the day-to-day. For the casual political observer, congressional leadership roles are far less important than the White House, and its reaction to the events of November 2, 2010. The voters want to see how President Obama will respond to what should be interpreted as an admonition, if not a repudiation, of the first two years of his presidency.
Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard has analyzed extensively the two models the President can pursue in dealing with a GOP-held Congress: Clintonian triangulation or Trumanesque confrontation. The triangulation model would mean the President must indentify and prioritize those issues where cooperation with the Republicans is possible and can yield results. Clinton’s gift was his ability to implement triangulation without necessarily sacrificing deeply held principles or the core beliefs of most rank-in-file Democrats.
The Truman option is purely offensive. Attack the GOP Congress for obstructing the President’s priorities and sending irresponsible bills to the White House to force the President’s veto pen. Some, like author and Time Magazine columnist Mark Halperin, have provided a road map for how Obama can reorient his presidency to affect a more Clintonian post-midterm turnaround. The problem with Halprin’s analysis, however, is that the President has shown no inclination to embrace compromise with the opposition.
The President’s combative tone on the campaign trail, suggesting that a Republican-controlled Congress would lead to “hand-to-hand combat” and telling an audience of Latino voters on Univision to “punish their enemies” at the polls, suggests the President will go the Truman route. This analysis may simply conflate Obama’s campaign tone with his intentions for governance. Obama’s handling of a Republican House will only be revealed once the112th Congress is sworn in. There is reason to believe, however, that the President will seek to make the Republicans in Congress and not policy the issue, if only because that has been the go-to tactic over the last 20 months.
President Obama has made Republican obstructionism the singular focus of his partisan supporters since he took office, despite the Democrats’ 59-seat majority in the Senate and 255-seat majority in the House. He blamed congressional Republicans for blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and a stimulus boost to states to meet teachers’ and emergency service personnel payrolls. “If this obstruction continues, unemployed Americans will see their benefits stop,” said Obama on June 16, 2010. Over the summer, he blamed a lack of a comprehensive immigration reform plan on recalcitrant Republicans. “Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes.” Even the British Petroleum oil leak had its origins in Republican-led efforts to deregulate industry. Obama said in June that Republicans had “gutted regulations and put industry insiders in charge of industry oversight.”
The President’s inclination to blame Republican members of Congress for legislative failures does not lack for evidence. A simple Google search of the term “Obama blames Republicans” yields 11.4 million results.
The President is also not above painting his opponents in broad strokes, invoking language that is inherently combative. In Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,”the President is quoted saying that Congressional Republicans voted against the initial stimulus effort and thus “set the tenor for the whole year … That helped to create the tea-baggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans.” This was in May, long before traditional campaign season begins. President Obama is predisposed to battle with Republicans and their supporters, even when it was mathematically impossible for their obstructionism to impact the legislative priorities of the 111th Congress.
Triangulation, it would appear, is not the President’s first instinct. Will the Truman approach work? Truman won a narrow reelection in 1948 by running against the “do-nothing 80th Congress.” President Obama has been running against the do-nothing 111th Congress’ minority party for the last two years. It is difficult to see how this strategy will work when it was so prematurely employed. The sting of this line of attack may already be lost.
The pressure will also be on Republicans to compromise with the White House, but they will be just as unlikely to compromise. The mandate of a midterm election that returns the GOP to the majority after two cycles that produced historic routes for the Republican Party will be clear to the new majority – no compromise, no surrender. The historic battles on the horizon are clearly visible today.
There is plenty of room for the President to maneuver and no course is set in stone. The President could review his position of the last two years and reverse or amend the present course. The Republican leadership in Congress could view compromise and legislative accomplishment as providing more benefits than naked conflict. However, this would require a major revision of positions on both sides that has so far not been forthcoming.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org