After dining at the White House last Friday with other GOP leaders, Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso claimed President Barack Obama “still hasn’t come to grips with the reality of the election and the consequences of the election.”
But I think the president has a pretty firm grip on reality and what the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate portends for his final two years in office. In a large sense, it matters more for Obama to unite Democrats as he completes his second term than to worry about how Republicans will govern. We already know what the GOP plans to do, because they’ve made their primary goal crystal clear: thwart all of Obama’s remaining agenda.
Party leaders like Barrasso want to spin the message as hard as they can that last week’s national elections give them unprecedented power to either roll back or totally repeal the changes the president has made in health care and financial reform, and a host of other issues.
Before the Republicans slap themselves silly high-fiving each other over the 180-degree turn to the political right they plan to oversee, they need a healthy dose of reality. The Republicans’ victory was a rebuke by voters who are disenchanted with portions of Obama’s agenda, but Barrasso and his colleagues shouldn’t overstate the reasons why it occurred, or the consequences.
The GOP won its Senate majority primarily because voters are sick and tired of gridlock in Washington D.C. Even though Republicans are to blame for most of it through their obstructionism during the past six years, the electorate chose to take it out on Obama, since the proverbial buck stops with him.
Yes, the president’s approval numbers slipped to new lows, but don’t forget the public’s confidence in Congress fell to single digits. Republicans, who were able to dump millions of dollars for campaign ads in battleground states that Democrats could not match, managed to sell the fundamental idea that Washington would finally get its act together if it had a majority in both houses of Congress to counter Obama. The strategy brought in those who wanted to finally end gridlock while still maintaining the party’s hard-core right wing that despised everything Obama stands for.
After both sides spent a few days gushing about a potential new era of cooperation between them, that lofty dream crumbled before it even began. Last week ended with the president remaining firm on his promise to take executive action on immigration reform if lawmakers don’t act by the end of the year. Barrasso matter-of-factly told reporters that such unilateral action by the president would be viewed by the GOP as a “toxic decision.”
The single biggest mistake Obama made — the one that most helped Republicans take control of the Senate — was listening to the pleas of Democratic candidates in red states who didn’t want him to take action on immigration before the election. The president weighed his political options and decided Senate control actually hinged on the issue.
Obama and his advisers now realize it was a major miscalculation. Republicans got their base to the polls in key states, while Latino Democrats who were disillusioned by the president breaking his promise to them stayed home.
Obviously, Obama can’t do things over, so his administration has to live with the consequences of the error. But he still has cards left to play that could ultimately leave his party in good shape heading into the 2016 elections, and that should enhance his legacy.
First, the Senate has already passed a bipartisan immigration bill that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to consider. With an even stronger Tea Party element now in the House, it’s not likely his position will change, which means the GOP should logically be blamed for failing to compromise on a critical issue Senate Republicans have already endorsed.
House Republicans are boxed into a corner on this one. There’s simply no pay-off for them to touch the immigration issue, so they won’t. They realize true immigration reform will only drive more Latinos to the Democratic Party once they obtain documented status.
That leaves Obama free to take executive action and do the right thing, while also shoring up Latino support for his party, leaving House conservatives to spout nonsense about deporting 12 million people.
Second, there are issues where both parties can actually find common ground — and better — if they don’t want support for their respective efforts to completely erode. Americans expect them to come together in the fight against ISIS and other terrorism threats, and they need to pass a budget. Presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already said there will be no government shutdowns or votes against raising the debt ceiling. It’s a smart move, considering how poorly those radical actions were perceived in the past.
Third, while Republicans are claiming a complete mandate in the wake of the election, Obama noted two-thirds of eligible voters chose not to cast a ballot. That number will greatly decrease during the presidential election in two years, and if the GOP is too cocky and thinks it can do anything it wants to, it’s setting itself up for a backlash at a time when many voters will already be wary of giving Republicans control of both Congress and the White House.
But Democrats have to avoid missteps if they want to prevail in 2016 and maintain the presidency. They can’t succeed if they let Republican governors and state legislators continue to pass voter ID laws designed to keep part of the Democrats’ traditional base — students, minorities and the poor — from voting.
Despite the temptation to gamble on another questionable political move, Obama needs to stand firm on his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. There is a danger that he won’t, handing Republicans a victory. However, it will only be a temporary win because it would likely backfire in 2016. In addition to the environmental havoc that will ensue if the pipeline is built, the public would finally be able to see this alleged job-creating project is a total scam. It would create at most 2,000 jobs during construction, and a projected 50 permanent jobs once it’s built.
The biggest obstacle for Obama to avoid is further splitting the party over the project. Some red state-Democrats favor Keystone, and they will vote with the Republicans to build the pipeline. The president should be able to veto the bill and survive an override vote, but it could be close. The vast majority of the Democratic base does not want any compromise on Keystone, and if Obama caves in, it could negate some of the party unity he would win on immigration reform.
I don’t think Democrats should fear Republicans’ bold claim they will either repeal or dismantle most of the Affordable Care Act. Obama has already put them on notice he will veto any attempt to kill the cornerstone of his presidency, and I find it difficult to believe GOP lawmakers like Barrasso are serious, despite their current saber rattling. They completely dropped “Obamacare” as an election issue, mostly because 10 million more Americans now have health insurance, and taking it away is virtually impossible.
Even though extremists like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are licking their chops at the prospect of impeaching Obama, Republican leaders ought to be smart enough to know the corresponding angry response by voters fed up by partisanship would cost them the gains they just made, and endanger one or both of their majorities.
The Democrats’ election losses, Barrasso’s hype notwithstanding, totaled about the average number of seats that change hands in both chambers during mid-term elections. But to keep the presidency, the Democratic Party must vigorously challenge in court unnecessary voter ID laws. If they aren’t successful, it won’t really matter what happens in the upcoming skirmishes between Obama and Congress.