Election: The changes may be just starting

With a troop authorization, Obama has already moved in a direction Republicans would like. And the electoral map could be more fluid than most analysts might assume.
Crosscut archive image.

House Speaker John Boehner

With a troop authorization, Obama has already moved in a direction Republicans would like. And the electoral map could be more fluid than most analysts might assume.

In the wake of Tuesday's Republican successes in congressional and state-level elections, analysts have leapt to immediate conclusions regarding the last two years of the Obama presidency and the 2016 presidential election. View most of the assertions skeptically.

Let's talk first about the next two years: The final two years of presidential second terms historically have been unproductive, regardless of the composition of the Congress. President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all have made statements pledging varying degrees of bipartisan cooperation. They are no doubt sincere — to varying degrees.

Republicans in both houses of Congress now will be responsible for sending budget documents to the president. Boehner and McConnell's major task, within their party, will be to hold off Tea Party diehards who will persist in urging government shutdowns and other draconian measures to check White House spending. At this moment, it appears likely Boehner and McConnell will be able to assert control. Budget issues probably will be resolved without the recurring crises of the past several years. Trade policy and infrastructure investment are places where consensus can be reached.

But, in the areas where there are major policy differences between them, Obama and the GOP Congress will not easily come to agreement.

Obamacare may be amended slightly, even with the president's cooperation, to iron out cost and coverage glitches in the original legislation.  But it will not be repealed. Obama would veto repeal legislation. Similarly, if Obama follows through on his pledge to enact immigration reform via executive order, before the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will rebel. So, it seems more likely he will issue an executive order addressing only one small part of the issue and then try for a broader deal next year.

National security and foreign policy may be affected most immediately. Sen. John McCain, a frequent critic of the administration, will become Senate Armed Services chair. The president on Friday approved sending 1,500 more troops to Iraq, after having earlier signaled that he might be prepared to take more aggressive actions, as suggested by McCain, against both ISIS and the current Syrian regime.

Democratic congressional leaders, since Tuesday's election, have made on- and off-record criticisms of Obama, blaming him for their losses. This is normal. The results have been traumatic, especially, for outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and senior Democrats who chair important committees. Their power and influence will be sharply diminished. Sen. Patty Murray, for instance, will lose the chair position in the Budget Committee. When things settle down, though, they can be expected to regroup and on most issues align themselves with Obama. Bottom line: Expect little from the next two years except, perhaps, better efforts in both parties to govern with less rancor.

About the 2016 elections: There is truth in the assertion, made by several analysts, that the electoral map tilts toward a GOP Congress and a Democratic presidency.

A tier of northern and Pacific states have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the past several national elections, making it difficult for any Republican candidate to win an electoral majority without an unexpected victory in a normally Democratic state.

Similarly, Republicans have what amounts to a lock in most southern and border states — not sufficient to win the presidency but enough to achieve congressional majorities. Beginning in the 1960s, southern congressional redistricting took place, with district lines sometimes being grotesquely redrawn, so as to assure black congressional representation in the old Confederacy. It did that. But, at the same time, it withdrew sufficient black votes from adjacent districts that they are now represented by white Republican candidates. It's an unintended consequence of well-meant motives — and it helps the GOP get congressional majorities.

There is a mistake, however, in believing that electoral maps will not change and that the future amounts to the status quo extrapolated.  There have been big shifts at various junctures in modern history.

The Great Depression and New Deal made Democrats a majority party. The map shifted Republican when popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower became president. Democrat Lyndon Johnson won an historic landslide national victory in 1964, but, only four years later, had been driven from office and Republican Richard Nixon was elected president as traditional Democratic states went GOP. The so-called Reagan Revolution created another shift in 1980, broadening the appeal of the Republican Party in much of the country.

Obama won election in 2008 and 2012 because of unprecedented mobilization of minority and young voters. But young voters, last Tuesday, went less Democratic and/or voted in lesser number. Latino and Asian voters are regarded today as Democratic. But their social and cultural values more approximate Republicans' than Democrats'. What happens in 2016 if immigration has been removed as a divisive issue? What happens to the African American vote without a black candidate on the national Democratic ticket?

It's now regarded as almost certain that Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee. Yet, in 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination in part because Democrats nationally wanted someone other than Hillary as their nominee. She will be challenged from the lefthand side of the party, in particular, by someone such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Clinton did badly in Iowa, the first vital nominating contest, in 2008. Once the games begin, almost anything can happen in a nominating race. (Remember that, in 1972, George McGovern was the presidential choice of between 2 and 4 percent of Democratic voters before the primaries, yet won his party's nomination.)

The Republican field will be far wider than the Democratic in 2016. Odds are, however, that a Mitt Romney-like centrist will again emerge as nominee — maybe Romney himself, maybe Florida's Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, or even the volcanic Chris Christie. Don't discount the possibility of a mellowed Newt Gingrich re-emerging in 2016 as a more temperate and moderate figure. Republicans also have possible Latino and black vice-presidential candidates on a ready list whereas Democrats at this point have none. Bottom line: Today's geographic and demographic alignments will not necessarily remain as they are in 2016.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.