The midterm elections delivered a resounding verdict of dissatisfaction with Washington in general and President Barack Obama in particular. While the Senate race in Louisiana is headed to a runoff, already the Republicans picked up eight Senate seats and control of the chamber, and padded their margin in the House. Both parties can draw some lessons from the election results, especially the Democrats, as they try to chart a way forward.
It was to be expected that Democratic incumbents would have a hard time holding on to Senate seats in ruby red states like Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina. But Colorado is a state that was deeply purple, and leaning to the Democrats. Obama won it twice and in 2010 -- which was a very good year for Republicans -- incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet held on to his seat. This year, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall ran a campaign that was almost exclusively focused on the "war on women," claiming his opponent would try to restrict access to contraception and abortion. The strategy backfired as Udall lost his seat.
"Democrats fabricated a failed 'war on women' campaign claiming that women would no longer have access to contraception or abortion. It was a shoot and a miss," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. "Democrats have done more for women than the Republican Party, yet failed to promote all the good work we have done because of our party's fixation on a radical abortion policy."
Day notes that the effects were felt beyond Colorado. "The reality is most American, and most Democrats, support reasonable restrictions on abortion. Additionally, states such as Texas, West Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas lean even more pro-life," she told NCR.
Democrats tried running from Obama and his policies, but that never works. Instead of defending the Affordable Care Act, they allowed Republicans to characterize it (or mischaracterize it) as a failure. Instead of addressing bread-and-butter economic issues, Democrats have now embraced the kind of culture war issues that animated the religious right two and three decades ago. It did not work for the GOP and it won't work for the Democrats either.
Day thinks the only solution for Democrats that will work in both the presidential election and in midterms is to "embrace a big-tent policy to support reasonable restrictions on abortion and promote assistance and support for pregnant women and their families -- during their pregnancy and beyond."
The problem for Republicans is that they cannot really claim a mandate, because they did not run on any particular agenda beyond being the un-Obama party. Nonetheless, it is always better to be in the majority and it is always better to have a larger majority than before. One of the big winners, according to Matthew Green, politics professor at The Catholic University of America, was House Speaker John Boehner.
"Speaker Boehner will definitely have more breathing room because his party's caucus will be bigger," Green told NCR. "I expect he will be a little less worried about being booted from the speakership than he was at the start of the last Congress. On the other hand, Boehner will still have a sizeable bloc of very conservative members to deal with. Most were in the last Congress, but some newly elected members, like Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, are highly outspoken and very conservative."
Green notes that Boehner must also contend with the feistiest member of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, even though Cruz is not in the House. "There are perhaps a dozen or so House Republicans look to Cruz for strategic and policy leadership over their own speaker," Green said.
Additionally, there are some libertarian-leaning Republicans who might align themselves with Democrats on issues like domestic surveillance or the recently passed Washington, D.C., law permitting the recreational use of marijuana. "So Boehner will be in an easier place than he is now, but he'll still probably have his work cut out for him," Green concluded.
It remains to be seen if Obama will work any better with the incoming Congress than he did in previous years. Obama, like his predecessor President George W. Bush, is widely criticized for not investing time in building relationships with members of Congress, even those in his own party.
"Stalemate could come quite quickly, or it might not come at all," Green observed. "A lot depends on what Obama and congressional Republicans want to do and how willing they are to compromise. So far, both parties have given contradictory signals about their willingness to cooperate, so it's hard to say at this point what will happen."
Already, any attempt to reach across party lines and down the length of Pennsylvania Avenue on the issue of immigration reform has crashed and burned. Boehner has not brought the Senate-passed immigration reform bill up for a vote because a majority of his caucus opposes it, even though a majority of the entire House would undoubtedly pass the bill into law.
Obama delayed unilateral action before the election, but now, under enormous pressure, he has used an executive order to alleviate the plight of as many undocumented immigrants as he can reach by executive action. Republicans countered that such unilateral action will "poison the well" of future compromise on other issues, but it is frankly hard to imagine the well any more poisonous than it already is.
Indeed, some groups within the Democratic tent are terrified that compromise with the GOP will mean caving on issues they most care about. Obama has sought a series of trade deals that have been blocked by Senate Democrats but would pass easily once the Republicans take over in January. Organized labor, already dissatisfied with Obama, could entirely abandon the administration if the president cuts a trade deal with the GOP.
Politics is called the art of the possible, and there is not much, and certainly not much good, that appears possible in the next two years. Soon, presidential aspirants will begin throwing their hats into the ring, further complicating the political landscape as both parties prepare for 2016.
Obama's last two years will be miserable, in part, because he was never able to function effectively as leader of his party. Consequently, his ability to win elections for himself produced no coattails for other Democrats. Now armed with the gavels in both chambers, Republicans are not going to go easy on the beleaguered president.
Still, if the GOP has no accomplishments to show voters two years hence, they may be looking at the kind of election results Democrats just had to weather. The only prediction that seems highly plausible: Voters will be even more dissatisfied with Washington in 2016.
[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his blog at NCRonline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic.]
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.