The Republicans hammered the Democrats on Election Day. There aren’t too many other ways to slice it. Sure, the Senate electoral map favored the Republicans: President Obama’s election in 2008 was a massive wave that swept Democrats to power in many traditionally red states, something that the Democrats couldn’t really hope to replicate. But the Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House. What’s next?
Let’s first address the elephant in the room. Mitch McConnell – the incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader – was right when he said that the Affordable Care Act would not be going away. Despite their smashing victory, the Republicans don’t even have 60 votes in the Senate to stop Democratic filibusters against repeal measures, let alone the 67 votes necessary to override President Obama’s inevitable veto. Obama withstood a government shutdown over Obamacare; what makes Republicans think that he will cave now?
With the ACA already on the books, the Democrats have the luxury of playing for time: It’s the Democrats’ turn again to be the obstructionist (remember, the “nuclear option” that banned a wide variety of filibusters was first threatened by the Republicans against stalling Democrats), and I have every confidence that they’ll do it with aplomb.
Democrats are already thinking about 2016: With control of the Senate no longer at stake, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has essentially cut bait on Senator Landrieu’s underdog runoff election in Louisiana, a clear sign that the Party intends to keep its gunpowder dry until the next election cycle begins. Although Republicans control Congress, they should be keeping an eye on 2016 as well, when the White House will be in play, and the Republican victors of the 2010 midterms (12 new GOP senators arrived in that year alone) will be back on the ballot. With Republicans constrained by the Democrats in the Senate and the White House, staying in control is one of the best medium-term goals they can have.
But in the next two years, what can the resurgent Republicans do?
Find things they can work on with President Obama. The Republicans can’t just wait until Election Day 2016 to govern: It’s abundantly clear that in American history, single-party rule is not the norm. While Republicans can’t and don’t need to completely remake the country according to their own vision in the next two years, they should have some record of success. For example, Alaska’s Democratic Senator, Mark Begich, is likely to lose his seat in part because he has not managed to get a floor vote on a single amendment in the last six years.
Republicans and President Obama have shown a willingness to work together in the past on issues on which they already agree. We should see legislation on these issues get off to a very fast start, then. For example, Obama’s dearly valued free trade pacts – the TTIP with the European Union and the TPP with the Pacific Rim – should get a better hearing from a Republican-controlled Senate than a Democratic one. Other issues such as Keystone XL will enable Republicans to point to their bipartisan track record in 2016. (For that very same reason, it is in President Obama’s express interest to hurry along these measures as rapidly as possible, so that the memory of these bipartisan triumphs will have faded by the time Americans head to the polls.)
Apply more oversight and control over the operations of government. Republican leadership of the Senate committees allows the GOP to review, consent to, edit and potentially mothball all legislation that comes through Congress. Moreover, Republican committee chairmen have powers that help them play the media game – hearings, informal investigations and the like. For example, the White House is already worrying about how they will contend with Senator McCain, the soon-to-be Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a prominent critic of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.
Utilize their advice and consent powers over the judiciary. The late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall once remarked during the Reagan years that if he should die while Reagan was president, his aides should just “prop me up and keep on voting.” I don’t expect any of the four over-70 justices to retire in the next two years, but Marshall’s point is instructive here because it extends to the entire American judiciary. While President Obama still controls the ability to nominate judges, Republicans in the Senate have the power to veto them. The result is that Obama will have to nominate judges that Republicans will accept.
Cast the Democrats as the “party of no.” 2016 looms large, and while you can’t just ignore the next two years, it’s instructive that Republicans are already talking about the future. With control of Congress, they now have the legislative initiative. Republicans should identify legislation that President Obama disagrees with, but that a broad majority of Americans support, and they should push these bills, forcing the Democrats to filibuster and the President to use his veto. With Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, the Democrats will have no choice but to cast unpopular votes. Filibusters and the recent government shutdown allowed the Democrats to call the Republicans the “party of no” for years; it’s now time for the Republicans to repay the favor.
Think towards the long term. At the end of the day, 2016 is still a medium-term objective. But the Republicans still have to answer the key questions – what principles to espouse, what direction to take, what strategy to employ. America’s demographics are changing – as we’ve all heard, the Hispanic population is growing in size, as is the key subgroup of Evangelicals in the Hispanic community; on a more local note, the Asian population in California continues to grow, and with big GOP gains among Asians (13 percent of the California population), the bulwark of Democratic power in the Electoral College may eventually be in play. How can Republicans appeal to these voters? These questions weren’t answered in 2014. But they will have to be answered eventually.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.