This essay is a continuation of the dialogue started last month on the broken U.S. Congress. In the November issue, Jon H. Oberg discussed solutions to fix the U.S. Senate. This month, Randall Moody, a veteran Washington newspaper reporter and lobbyist, shares his thoughts on the 2010 election.
When Rep. John Boehner of Ohio cried on national television election night, Nov. 2, in anticipation of becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, it reminded me of another time a few years ago that I saw him shed a few tears. I was in his congressional office when he was told a story about two children who were caught fighting in school. They were separated and told they should settle their dispute in a more civilized manner; discussing their differences, finding common ground and agreeing on a solution. This whole process seemed to move Boehner at the time, but since then he has shown much more inclination to fight than to compromise.
Boehner will become Speaker of the House of Representatives next year and a key player in blocking President Obama’s “Hope and Change” legislative agenda and possibly instrumental in making him a one-term president.
How did this happen? There’s been much prognosticating in the media and finger pointing in Democratic ranks since that party lost the majority in the House and barely hung on to the majority in the U.S. Senate. There is plenty of blame—or credit—to go around: the president’s agenda was too ambitious and complex and not understood by the American people; there was too much partisanship, delay, vote trading and compromising in the process around the passage of health care reform legislation; high unemployment rates that refused to go down in spite of a bipartisan $757 billion economic stimulus law; a record federal budget deficit that grew through the George W. Bush years created in part by tax cuts—but not spending cuts—enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress; moderate, so-called Blue Dog Democrats in the Congress who didn’t fit the liberal mold, bailed on their leadership and weakened his efforts; the Pelosi-Reid congressional leadership was easily parodied in attack ads against Democrats who had “rented” Republican House seats in 2006 and 2008; attacks fueled by billions of dollars spent on TV ads by right-wing outside groups whose identity was kept hidden by campaign finance laws weakened by a conservative Supreme Court; 24-hour cable TV shows that thrived on irrelevant tidbits and contrived controversies to stir up an already unsettled electorate; the election of a little-known, moderate Massachusetts state legislator to a U.S. Senate seat.
Wait! What was that again? One state election triggered this whole debacle? Well, not exactly, but it started a sequence of events that I believe resulted in the political chaos that is sure to come in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
When Scott Brown was elected in the Bay State to fill the seat of the deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy, he deprived the Democratic majority in the Senate of the key 60 votes to break filibusters of legislation. By Senate rule—not mandated by the Constitution or by law—the Senate leader must get permission of 60 senators, if someone objects, before any legislation can proceed to debate or vote. When Republican Brown was elected, he reduced Democratic numbers to 59, thus depriving a supposed automatic filibuster-breaking majority of the magic 60. Not that the Democratic leaders could always count on their own party members to vote together on anything, but at least they had a place to start to build the numbers needed to pass legislation.
Brown was elected with help of the so-called Tea Party movement, a collection of disaffected Republicans and independents, some who think the country is led by someone possibly born in Kenya or Indonesia who wants to do away with democracy, impose a socialist regime, take away everyone’s guns and make them worship in mosques. They have turned out to be an imposing political force—not necessarily good at picking candidates (witness Christine O’Donnell in New Hampshire and Sharron Angle in Nevada)—that provided grassroots volunteers and voters for many victorious Republicans—not all of whom are in synch with their agenda (Scott Brown, for instance, wanting to get re-elected in 2012, has cast some votes that has put him on the Tea Party hit list). In many states, Tea Partiers have infiltrated the precinct ranks of the Republican Party—the people who elect delegates to county and state party conventions—and no doubt will play a major role in choosing the Republican nominee for president in 2012.
But enough about this election. What’s in store for the country during the next two years? Let’s start with the states. More than 600 new Republicans were elected to state legislative chambers. Governors in key presidential electoral states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, Texas, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin are Republicans. Congressional redistricting will take place over the next two years, possibly making for a more permanent Republican majority. Since it can be anticipated that these new Republicans are conservative on the social issues, more battles in the states over immigration, abortion and gay rights are in the offing. Is this what the majority of Americans voted for?
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker Boehner and his “young gun” team of establishment Republican leaders will struggle to either co-opt or control the new majority of Tea Partiers within their ranks. Look for restrictions on the above-mentioned social issues to turn up as amendments to appropriations bills that must originate in the House. When that legislation hits the Senate, the reduced Democratic majority won’t have the votes to strip those amendments from the host legislation and, not wanting to risk defunding important programs, the Senate sends the amendment-laden bills to the president. Does he sign or veto? What about earmarks—the so-called “pork barrel” projects funded by members of Congress to bring votes and contributions from the home state or district? The Tea Partiers made a big issue in the election about ensuring those are eliminated. Will those promises hold up or will spurned constituents who want the pork force many to rethink?
In the Senate, the 60-vote gridlock will remain, stymieing the Obama agenda as well as any Republican legislation that comes from the House. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already has announced that his top priority is to make sure President Obama is not re-elected in 2012. How will voters respond to this lack of action? Will the electorate be in a mood to throw all the bums out? Including the president?
Oh yes, the presidential election in 2012. Democrats will be working to re-elect a frustrated and weakened president and find their way out of the political margins in Washington and in the states. Republicans will be looking for a candidate who must not only satisfy the Tea Partiers within their ranks but be viable to general-election voters—a tough job. Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are favorites of the Tea Party and could win Republican primaries, but can they win a general election against an incumbent? Obama can rebound for sure. Improve his communication with those Democrats and independents who elected him; triumph his successes and that of the Democratic Congress: the stimulus package which saved the country from depression; needed reform of a broken health insurance system; equal pay for women (the Lilly Ledbetter Act); financial services reform; higher education cost reductions. While Republican traditionalists and Tea Partiers go at each other, congressional Democrats have the opportunity to take back many of those lost seats in 2012 and return Hope for a Change.