The View From Washington: Post U.S. Election Review
So. We had a federal election here in the United States. A bit less than two weeks ago as I write this. Indeed, I write with a little bit of trepidation given how fast things seem to be changing. But I am inspired by what happened during a day I spent with Henry Kissinger in February, 1989 (it’s a good story, will tell it sometime). In response to someone who said something to him, Dr. Kissinger said the notion of Poland ever being in NATO was absurd. If a guy like that can get something like that so wrong, what’s the harm in my throwing down a few predictions?
What is known and has not changed since Election Day is the basic math and certain facts related to that:
- Republicans won big, taking the Senate, earning their largest House majority in many decades and winning governorships in some surprising places.
- Turnout was the lowest since World War II
- Low turnout meant the impact of both party bases was magnified. The Republican base was relatively fired up and voted. The Democratic base was not fired up and many stayed home. Indeed, in many races, both candidates ran AGAINST President Obama. It is an old saying in U.S. politics that in a race between the genuine article and its opposite, people will vote for the genuine article. A candidate refusing to say whether or not she voted for the President was never going to win, anywhere.
But what is not known is much more important and the subject of much discussion. Much changing discussion. To be fair, let’s start with what my own predictions were the next day.
I predicted Congress would do all it could to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year (till September 30, 2015) and thus avoid a politically dangerous government shutdown. I predicted the President would take executive action on immigration, and combine that with approval, in some form, of the Keystone Pipeline. I predicted that the Senate would approve most of the Obama nominees currently pending, especially ambassadors and the Attorney General designee. I also hopefully predicted that certain things this next year, such as approval of bills to fund transportation (including aviation) will pass with (relatively) minimal difficulty, perhaps even containing basic reforms (federal surface and aviation programs are funded by a mechanism that was designed at a time of gas guzzling cars and before the unbundling trend on airline fares. A re-think is very much needed).
I felt even better about my predictions after the new Senate Majority Leader, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell stated clearly in his first post-election press conference that the government would be funded.
An internal debate is breaking out in the Republican party over whether or not to use the budget, including approval of the debt ceiling, to either change Obamacare or blunt any executive action on immigration, or both. How that goes, and what it will mean for the rapidly expanding Republican Presidential field, will be very interesting to see. Key figures are already staking out their positions, and others who may want to run are trying to avoid engaging the question. Look for this to intensify when the President announces his executive actions on immigration, or should he veto legislation currently pending to approve Keystone.
Indeed, this is another issue on which my immediate prediction appears set to go awry. I had always believed the President would like to find a way to approve the pipeline. Now, I am not so sure of that. All the signals are that he would veto such legislation, and that he is very skeptical. Part of that, I must say, may stem from the tactics used by pipeline proponents which may have made the issue more political than it should have been. I still think a quiet approval would have been possible if the political temperature had not been turned up so high. I also fear that proponents are making the same mistake us NAFTA proponents made more than two decades ago and are over-promising the benefits. The benefits are, and can be, real. But when claimed and predicted benefits fall far short then credibility is lost. I think this is what has happened in the trade debate after NAFTA, frankly.
(Since I wrote those words, the U.S. Senate fell one vote short of approving pipeline legislation. The vote was taken as a means of trying to provide electoral strength to Louisiana Senator Marty Landrieu, Chair of the Senate Energy Committee, a staunch supporter of the pipeline, and a senator facing an uphill battle in her runoff election. A word or a wink from the President would likely have been enough to pass the legislation. But none was forthcoming. Now, with the vote lost, and Senator Landrieu paying a political price, there is no way I can see the President signing pipeline legislation sure to pass in the new Congress. Either Congress will have to override his veto – very unlikely – or the State Department’s review will have to be overwhelmingly positive – also unlikely. The administration signing it at any time in the next two years after basically sacrificing the re-election chances of a key senator is hard to conceive. I wish I could say I was more optimistic.)
Perhaps even more interesting is what happens on the Democratic side. I have a counter-intuitive take on what happened to the President and his policies in this election.
As already stated, most candidates of both parties ran either against President Obama, or away from him, or both. The President, understanding this, held back from taking certain actions, especially executive action on immigration. But he also stated clearly and on more than one occasion that while he was not on the ballot, his policies were, and also that many people with whom he has worked closely are on the ballot. A lot of Republicans used those words in campaign commercials. A lot of Democrats were thrown off stride.
The result was a big loss. It isn’t just the numbers of seats, it also gets to the size of the defeats. Races that were expected to be within 3-5 points ended up being double digit margins in the Republicans’ favor. Other races that were expected to be easy Democratic wins such as the Virginia Senate race or the Maryland Governor’s race turned out differently (in Virginia the Democrat won by a very small percentage and in Maryland the Republican won).
There has been a lot of air time dispensed since then saying that if only the President had taken action on immigration, or if the Democratic candidates had run more closely to the President and not away from him, the base would have turned out and the result would have been different. My take is slightly different.
I think almost all of these races would have gone the way they did regardless. Some of the margins would have been much closer for sure, but the ultimate winner would not have changed in many cases. So, I do not believe that those tactics would have altered the overall scorecard much.
Here is what I think would have happened had candidates run closer to the President and his policies and had he taken action on immigration, and the Democrats still lost the Senate, lost House seats and lost governorships in a series of close elections.
All of the talk right now would have been had candidates just run away from the President they would have won those close races. That the reason Democrats lost was because they ran too CLOSE to the President is what people would be saying. He would be greatly weakened, as would the policies he has championed. People would have no way of knowing that running away from him would produce an even bigger negative result.
So, paradoxically, I think the President is in stronger shape now than he would have been had the Democrats run closer to him. That’s not to say he is in very strong shape, he is somewhat weakened. But he is stronger than he would have been otherwise.
I think the way things turned out will increase pressure on Republican 2016 presidential candidates from the right and on Hillary Clinton from the left. It will have a more polarizing impact on our politics, and gives President Obama an opening to position himself and his legacy as the more moderate Democratic President he sees himself being. How he responds to that opportunity will be very interesting to watch.
So, the outcome is good for congressional Republicans but not as good as some might think. It is bad for President Obama, but not as bad as it could have been. And it sets up a more difficult run to the White House for the aspirants of both parties, and a more entertaining one too! Let’s see how it goes!
A final note, I have accepted an offer to become President of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) and will start shortly, as I write this. It will be determined whether, and under what circumstances, I can continue this column and I will let you know. I certainly hope I can continue to do this, in some form. One of the best things about my previous job was our Canadian members and the chance to visit Canada several times a year. This has been the next best thing.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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