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Could Republicans Taking Control Of The Senate Be Good For Obama?

Obama State Of The Union 2013

With less than four months to go until the midterm elections, most political observers would reach the conclusion that things aren’t going so well for President Obama at the moment. His job approval number, both overall and on specific areas such as foreign policy, continues to plummet. The international situation seems to be nothing more than one shifting crisis after another. His Administration was handed a string of significant losses by the Supreme Court as the Justices headed out of town for their summer recess on issues ranging from recess appointments to cell phone searches to the Affordable Care Act . Congress is threatening to sue him over what it believes to be Executive Department overreach. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the odds are starting to look better and better that Republicans will be able to pull out the victories needed to gain control of the Senate in November, albeit likely by a small margin.

Faced with all of this, it arguably wouldn’t be inaccurate to start talking about Barack Obama in terms of being a lame duck. It is, after all, a status that will be conferred upon him eventually as the nation’s political attention shifts even more to the 2016 battles inside both the Republican and Democratic Parties. If the Republicans grab control of the Senate, then it will be next to impossible for him to get much of anything done legislatively without concessions to the GOP, and it would become incredibly difficult for him to successfully complete any appointments to the Cabinet or the Judiciary with anything other than milquetoast candidates.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, though, takes the contrarian view, and argues that Republicans gaining full control of Congress could be the best thing that could happen to Barack Obama in his last two years in office:

Yet there’s a chance that having an all-Republican Congress would help Obama — and even some White House officials have wondered privately whether a unified Republican Congress would be better than the current environment. Republicans, without Harry Reid to blame, would own Congress — a body that inspires a high level of confidence in just 7 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup survey last month finding Congress at a new low and at the bottom of all institutions tested.

There would be no more excuses for Republicans’ failure to put forward their own health-care plan, immigration proposals, specific cuts to popular government programs, and pet causes involving abortion, birth control and gay rights. This would set up real clashes with Obama — who could employ the veto pen he hasn’t used a single time since Republicans gained control of the House in 2010 — and sharp contrasts that would put him on the winning side of public opinion.

It is not hard to imagine a Republican takeover of the Senate causing conservatives in both chambers to overreach. House Republicans would get more pressure from their base to take a swing at impeachment, because the odds of convicting Obama in the Senate would be better (if still prohibitive). Alternatively, Republican leaders, recognizing that the public will hold them responsible now that they have complete control of Congress, might try to compromise with Obama.

In the first scenario, marauding conservatives drive Republicans to oblivion in 2016 and beyond, putting Hillary Clinton in the White House. In the second scenario, Obama actually accomplishes something in his last two years.

I do have to admit that the prospect of a fully Republican Congress going so far over the top when it comes to legislation and investigations that they end up hurting themselves more than they hurt the President or the Democratic Party is not all that far fetched. We saw this scenario play out twenty years ago when Republicans took control of Congress and then ended up overplaying their hand against a President who proved himself to be far more politically astute and skillful than one might have thought given how his first two years in office played out. While Republicans managed maintain control of Congress throughout Clinton’s Presidency, and well beyond that, they found that they couldn’t really succeed in moving their agenda forward without cooperating with President Clinton, even while they were trying to remove him from office. Through it all, Clinton not only managed to win re-election and leave office with the highest job approval ratings since Ronald Reagan, he also managed to gain credit for many of the policy ideas that Congressional Republicans were advocating, such as welfare reform.

It’s not too hard to see how things could play out if the GOP gains control of the Senate this time around. The investigations of everything from Benghazi, to the IRS, to Fast & Furious and no doubt whatever else some Republicans can think of would be taken up several notches. It would be become easier for the Senate to pass legislation passed in the House, although the legislative filibuster, which Mitch McConnell has said he would not tamper with, would give Senate Democrats some not inconsiderable ability to save the President from having to issue veto after veto. Budget negotiations would become far more contentious, and the threat of a government shutdown would increase. And, yes, just maybe, Republicans in the House will try to push impeachment which, even if it doesn’t succeed could end up tarnishing the Republican brand even more than it already has been as we head into 2016. Given how Republicans have behaved since Obama took office, it is not at all unreasonable to think that things could indeed unfold this way, and that it could inure to the political benefit of the President, and potentially the Democratic nominee in 2016.

Looking at things from a different direction, Jazz Shaw responds to Milbank by pointing out that his analysis is a large part of the reason why people hate Washington, D.C.:

In these few paragraphs we get an unapologetic peek behind the mask and see exactly what the real goals are in the DC elite thinking circles. Actually getting something done isn’t in anyone’s best interest. (One need look no further than the immigration debate – which Democrats have no interest in resolving – to see that.) Milbank speaks aloud what so many leaders in the Democrat Party try not to reveal. The true objective is always winning the next election, not doing something for the nation today. If Obama can be propped up on camera wielding his veto pen, that’s a win, even if it means there’s still nothing getting done. He’s fighting the Republicans and that’s all that counts. Milbank doesn’t want the President impeached, but he most certainly does want the GOP to try it in case it makes voters think more kindly of Obama. And if the pathetic polling numbers of the legislative branch remain in the toilet for two more years, all the better – as long as the GOP shoulders the blame.

Jazz makes some good points here, of course. Nowhere in Milbank’s piece does he talk about ways in which President Obama and a fully Republican Congress could work together during the last two years of his term to get important things like immigration reform, comprehensive tax reform, or entitlement reform accomplished. Heck, Milbank doesn’t even talk about how they could possibly work together to get the ordinary functions of government that are covered by the budget process taken care of with less acrimony and brinksmanship than we have seen in the six years or so. Instead, like most analysts of his type, Milbank concentrate on the chess game that is the partisan battle. Would a Republican Congress make it easier for President Obama to navigate his final years in office, or harder? Would it hurt Republican chances in 2016 or help them? These are the only questions that people like Milbank are concerned about and, yes, it is a huge problem of what’s wrong with our political culture.

There’s just one problem. For better or worse, Milbank’s view of politics is the more realistic one, especially for a period of time when we are going to be knee deep in a Presidential election cycle.

Regardless of what the outcome is in November, once the midterm elections are over both parties are going to be shifting their attention to the Presidential election two years in the future. Every move, every legislative agenda, every talking point is going to be focused on what impact it will have on the party’s fortunes in November 2016. More importantly, it’s unlikely that either party is going to want to make significant progress on any of those “big issues” I listed above, because that would preclude them from using the issue in the upcoming election. Republicans are unlikely to compromise on immigration reform because of the problems that would raise with their base, while Democrats would be reluctant to make major compromises because it would take the issue away from them in 2016 as part of an effort to increase turnout among Latino voters. The incentives will be similar for issues like tax reform and entitlement reform. Even something as seemingly simple as the budget process will be infected by the approach of the 2016 elections and the efforts by each party to position themselves for that election. It’s a cynical way to look at politics, it doesn’t take into account what might be in the best interests of the country, and it will likely make political rhetoric even more bitter and partisan. It is, however, the reality that we live in.

Given all of that, I can’t say that Milbank is all that far off here.

Republicans have put together a long track record over the past six years of over-reaching when it came to confrontations with the President. We’ve seen it in the showdown’s over the debt ceiling increase in 2011 and the government shutdown just last year, of course, but also in House Republican investigations that have barely resonated with the public beyond the conservative media and the people who follow it. There’s every reason to think that we’d see this behavior continue if the GOP takes the Senate, not the least because the Tea Party and its associated groups are likely to double down on their political pressure on members of both branches to push the most radical agenda possible. How will that impact the GOP in 2016? It’s hard to say for sure, of course, but if 2012 is any indication then there’s every reason to believe that it will harm the party’s nominee no matter who it happens to be. The one restraint on all of this would be the leadership in the House and Senate but, of course, that is exactly why the Tea Party has made targeting leadership such a high priority. There’s unlikely to be any return to bipartisan comity if the GOP takes the Senate in any case, so I would argue that Milbank may not be too far off here, especially as it concerns just how the Republican Party could win the Senate, only to take a course that ends up ruining its chances in 2016.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. The true objective is always winning the next election, not doing something for the nation today.

    What does Jazz Shaw think the GOP has been doing since January, 2009?

    He hasn’t made a good point, he’s provided a fine example of GOP projection.
    ~

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 4

  2. ratufa says:

    If the Republicans grab control of the Senate, then it will be next to impossible for him to get much of anything done legislatively without concessions to the GOP…

    How is that different from how things are now?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  3. Tillman says:

    I do have to admit that the prospect of a fully Republican Congress going so far over the top when it comes to legislation and investigations that they end up hurting themselves more than they hurt the President or the Democratic Party is not all that far fetched.

    Trying out some British understatement there, Doug?

    Five years ago, I would have thought it somewhat far-fetched, what with only Newt’s implosion in the ’90s to go off of. Now we have a solid three years and change to look at in comparison. I want to say I doubt there’d be another government shutdown, but who knows?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  4. Tillman says:

    Actually getting something done isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

    Jazz, why don’t you try turning that oh-so-fine perceptual intellect of yours on to the people you vote for and how they’ve handled the task of “getting something done” since January 2011. You’ll find yourself in the embarrassing position of being the dude who supported the party that tried to repeal Obamacare forty-plus times in the House.

    Also, nice use of the “Democrat Party” there. And using the idea of Democrat elites scheming about the next election being the example of why people hate Washington, that was subtle.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 3

  5. anjin-san says:

    @ Jazz Shaw

    Democrat Party

    Dismissed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 3

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I thought that Dana Milbanks’s column was nonsense. What in the president’s prior background, experience, or behavior would lead anyone to believe he’d respond that way?

    I think that if the Republicans take the Senate by far the most likely outcome would be “option 3″, the one you didn’t quote:

    Of course, there is a third scenario, in which a Republican Senate majority only makes Obama miserable.

    Given our past experience both of the Republicans and the president I think that’s obviously the most likely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  7. Dave,

    As far as Obama goes, you’re probably correct. To be honest, I ended up finding myself more interested in discussing how the GOP would react to all of this, though. I find it hard to see how winning the Senate doesn’t lead the GOP to overreach, likely benefiting Democrats in 2016 and, possibly, making Obama look good by comparison.

    Quite honestly, I’m at the point now where I’m thinking that Obama will basically be a lame duck after November regardless of what happens, if he isn’t there already.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  8. Gustopher says:

    I think it would be bad for Obama, disastrous for Republicans, and bad for the country.

    Having a Democrat in the White House would blunt some of the crazy, though, so if the Republicans were to end up with the Senate and the House at any time in the next 20 years or so, now would probably be the best time.

    I do think the Republicans would simultaneously overreach and split their coalition to fragments. But the damage they would do as they circle around the toilet…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  9. grumpy realist says:

    The only way out I see is for Hillary to hold back, for the Democratic Party to serve up an extremely wimpy candidate, and for us to give the Republican Party absolutely everything that they claim they want.

    At which point we’ll probably see the party get into a real ding-dong fight between the crazies (Tea partiers) and those with a toe in reality (Business Republicans.)

    The Republican Party is going to have to come face to face with all the promises it has made to everyone and how they are operating off ideology, not something that works in the real world.

    I’ll just slip over to Australia or New Zealand in the meantime….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. Stan says:

    The most likely outcome of a Republican majority in the Senate would be impeachment in the House followed by a trial in the Senate that fails by a few votes. It would hurt the Republicans in Congress with the electorate for a month or so, but it would protect them against the Tea Party the next time they face a primary opponent. It would make us look even more ridiculous to the world than we do now, but the party that brought us Freedom Fries wouldn’t mind that at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  11. superdestroyer says:

    There is no reason for the Democrats to ever compromise no matter what any pundit in DC thinks. The Democrats know that every demographic trend in the U.S. is in their favor. Why make a compromise with the Republicans now (such as Clinton did with the Defense of Marriage Act) when all the Democrats have to do is wait.

    Even more than 50% of the actual voters in the U.S. will be automatic Democratic Party voters. The Democrats know to take the long view and get everything they want in the future rather than a partial victory today.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Isn’t the long term question how the Democrats will do in 2016 instead of how well the Republican do in 2014 and whether the Democrats will regain control of the House along with controlling the Senate. Because, once the Democrats control the White House and both sides of Congress, everyone can finally stop pretending that the Republicans are relevant and admit that the U.S. is a one party state. Since there is no way that anything that any Republican wants will be enacted through policy or governance, can we just stop pretending that the Republicans short term election wins are important?

    When the Democratic nominee is sworn in as President in January 2017 (presumptive-ly Hillary Clinton), it will mark a decade of irrelevant for the Republicans from a governance/policy perspective. Isn’t that long enough for everyone to understand that conservative politics is dead in the U.S.?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  13. edmondo says:

    Dana Milbank hasn’t been right about much in the last six years. It’s good to see that his streak will continue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  14. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “Because, once the Democrats control the White House and both sides of Congress, everyone can finally stop pretending that the Republicans are relevant and admit that the U.S. is a one party state.”

    If that happens, I’ll send you a fruit basket. Until that time, could you possibly stop posting this same message over and over and over and over and over again?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 3

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: We know that the Republicans will overreach if they take control of the Senate. Their majority in the Senate will be a short one since most of the Senators running for reelection in 2016 will be Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    Alternatively, Republican leaders, recognizing that the public will hold them responsible now that they have complete control of Congress, might try to compromise with Obama.

    That is so goddamn stupid I am now actively dumber for having read it.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 3

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    That is so goddamn stupid I am now actively dumber for having read it.

    Agreed, the Teahardists won’t let tem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  18. Moosebreath says:

    I think a fourth scenario is more likely than any of the ones suggested if the Republicans take control of the Senate. They will force a non-impeachment crisis (quite possibly by refusing to pass a budget or even stopgap funding unless Obamacare is repealed), to the cheers of their base. And the country will be divided on whether this is a reasonable course, in exactly the same proportions as believe that defaulting on the debt would have been reasonable, and filibustering nominees who later get confirmed unanimously has been reasonable, etc.

    The country has defined down what constitutes reasonable behavior by Congress. And it’s not going to change for the next decade.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  19. superdestroyer says:

    @wr:

    Everyday there are people on almost every blog in the world who post nothng but Democrats good, Republican bad. Yet, no one ever criticizes them for making that same post.

    At least we should all think about policy and governance in the U.S. given the current trends in politics. Worrying about the short term politics of Repubicans is pointless. The Repubicans are irrelevant. Whether they hold the Senate or not, policy and governance will be the same. Since the Republicans cannot pass a budget and will not shut down the government, they have zero influence.

    Since the probably that President Obama will throw the Congressional Democrats under the bus similar to what President Clinton did, then nothing will change. President Obama will just wait out the last two years of his time in office and the Democrats will just wait until demographic changes give them an unbeatable majority.

    Image all of the time being wasted by college students in learning how to manage and organize campaigns when by 2022, the general election will be irrelevant to policy and governance in the U.S.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6

  20. superdestroyer says:

    @Moosebreath:

    A government shut down will be a huge win for the Democrats and will just increase the chance that the Democrats will regain control of the House in 2016. My guess is that the Democrats will do everything they can to create a budget crisis because the Republicans will always be blamed for the problems.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  21. steve says:

    There will be impeachment votes and votes to repeal Obamacare. There will be no attempt to pass a positive agenda.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  22. Tyrell says:

    The President is certainly going to have his hands full:
    Iraq disaster as a new terrorist group runs rough shod over the country, led by a person who may actually be worse than Bin Laden
    Supreme Court is on a “just say no” binge
    Immigration issue blows up completely, with groups of “documented” Americans putting a stop to the busloads rolling across the borders.
    IRS computer problems – maybe it’s time to upgrade from Windows 98
    VA hospital scandals
    Gas prices too high
    Maybe the president should just go ahead and turn things over to Hillary.
    “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve got yourself into.”
    “I fell into to a burning ring of fire….I went down, down, down and the flames got higher” (Cash: “Ring of Fire”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  23. mke shupp says:

    Has the thought occurred to ANYONE that at some point the Republicans might win the Presidency and that Democrats might respond in Congress with McConnell-style negativity? If I were a Republican “leader” I’d be somewhat worried about this. Or is there some secret Cato Institute planning document laying out Executive Branch actions and perhaps some useful Supreme Court decisions that will ensure Republican ascendency forever?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Tillman says:

    @mke shupp: No one thinks ahead when using new political tactics, or thinks about the precedent being set for future use.

    For an apt metaphor, consider how the U.S. used nuclear weapons before realizing it might not be a great thing if everyone has them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  25. mke shupp says:

    @Moosebreath:

    And it’s not going to change for the next decade.

    I disagree. I think everything changes in 2022, when the latest census data results in reapportionment. Odds are, red states are going to lose seats in Congress (and maybe some governorships) and blue states will pick up seats. Whatever the Republicans hope to achieve for some time to come, they’ve got 8 years to accomplish it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @mke shupp:

    Since there is no chance the Republicans will ever regain the White House given the current state of politics in the U.S. and the chaning demographics, the Democrats do not have to worry about retribution.

    An easy game to play will be to figure out when the last Republican Appointed Supreme Court justice leaves the bench. Image what a Supreme Court with 9 versions of Sotomayor will make of the laws of the U.S.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  27. Moosebreath says:

    @mke shupp:

    “I think everything changes in 2022, when the latest census data results in reapportionment.”

    With 2022 being a mid-term election (where Democratic-leaning groups are less likely to vote), I’ll stick with a full decade.

    @mke shupp:

    “Has the thought occurred to ANYONE that at some point the Republicans might win the Presidency and that Democrats might respond in Congress with McConnell-style negativity? If I were a Republican “leader” I’d be somewhat worried about this. Or is there some secret Cato Institute planning document laying out Executive Branch actions and perhaps some useful Supreme Court decisions that will ensure Republican ascendency forever?”

    While the last is a possibility, Democrats by nature have a less unified caucus, and it would be very hard to keep all Democrats in line where nothing is actually gained by it. Indeed, the commentary during the passage of Obama’s agenda in the first two years of his Presidency was that it was unlikely that the Senate caucus would stay together and a Landrieu or a Manchin or a Lieberman was sure to defect sooner or later.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Kylopod says:

    Milbank writes:

    “Republicans, without Harry Reid to blame, would own Congress — a body that inspires a high level of confidence in just 7 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup survey last month finding Congress at a new low and at the bottom of all institutions tested.”

    Milbank seems to be overlooking the fact that most Americans have no idea which party controls which house of Congress:

    Nationwide, just 40% of Americans can correctly identify the partisan balance in both the House of Representatives and the Senate (that Republicans have the majority in the former, and Democrats in the latter). The remaining six-in-ten know only one (33%) or neither (28%) of those facts.

    If the public can’t keep straight when Republicans don’t control the Senate, how would gaining control of that chamber make much of a difference to the common perception of who “owns” Congress?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “Everyday there are people on almost every blog in the world who post nothng but Democrats good, Republican bad. Yet, no one ever criticizes them for making that same post.”

    My guess is that they don’t use exactly the same words in exactly the same order in every message. Do you really think that people who think you’re crazy/stupid/racist/whatever will change their minds just because you repost for the ten thousandth time?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  30. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “Image what a Supreme Court with 9 versions of Sotomayor will make of the laws of the U.S.”

    Let’s see… freedom… justice… a court the country can respect again. Yeah, I can see it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  31. bill says:

    @wr: yes, that wonderful spanish style democracy that’s just so successful everywhere…..said no one ever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  32. wr says:

    @bill: I really hope I’m misunderstanding you. Are you saying that having several Americans of hispanic descent on the supreme court would turn us into Spain of South America?

    What next — if we have more like Thomas, out country will turn into Zimbabwe?

    I know you like to flirt with racist sentiments, but today’s sounds like it comes straight from 193-s Alabama.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  33. DrDaveT says:

    Could a massive meteor strike in the Gulf of Mexico be good for Democrats in 2016?

    The correct answer is “No, that would be bad for everyone. Regardless of which party won some elections.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  34. superdestroyer says:

    @wr: I doubt even progressives would argue that having separate and unequal standards for education, hiring, promotion, school discipline, and the criminal justice system as being freedom and justice. I doubt is regulating speech based upon its content, who is making the speech, and who is listening is really freedom or justice.

    The future of Sotomayor is a world where the government has you fill out a form to determine your race, ethnicity, and gender and then determines which set of laws apply. It is amazing how progressives want such a world for the sake of revenge.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  35. superdestroyer says:

    @wr:

    HOw many times a day does a progressive make a post about the Koch Brothers, Fox News, talk radio, or religious crazies. Most of the progressives here at Outsidethebeltway go no farther in their thinking than repeating talking points from MSNBC or Moveon.org.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8

  36. Tyrell says:

    @superdestroyer: That is why I do not watch those news networks. It is mainly opinions with no real news reporting. I mainly watch local news broadcasts, and talk to the local group down at the fast food/coffee places. Sometimes I will reach someone on the cb radio and find out what is going on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0