Jonathan Cohn

A Silver Lining to the GOP Taking Congress? Here Are Three.

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Note: This is the first in an occasional series examining how Republican control of Congress might affect policy debates in the next two years.

The pre-election polls seem to trending, ever so slightly, back towards the Democrats. But it still seems likely that the Republicans will control one, and maybe two, houses of Congress come January.

That's obviously not good news for liberals or for liberalism. The Republicans will try to slash taxes for the wealthy, shrink the federal government, and repeal major legislation starting with health care reform. They probably won't get too far as long as President Obama wields the veto stamp. But majority status and committee chairmanships will give Republicans plenty of opportunities to wield power, whether by controlling the appropriations process or by issuing subpoenas.

At a fundraising dinner on Wednesday, Obama warned Democratic donors that the consequences of a Republican rout would be dire. He's absolutely right.

Still, Republican control of Congress doesn't have to be all bad. In fact, I can think of three distinct ways that minority status might help the Democrats, ideally in ways that would limit the Republicans' ability to wreak havoc and maybe even advance the liberal cause, however incrementally, over the long term. 

At the risk of slipping into opinion journalism self-parody--I believe this what twitter users have in mind when they apply the hashtag #slatepitches--here are those three reasons:

1. It would flush Republicans out into the open, by forcing them to compose and defend detailed legislation.

One reason that the Democrats are in trouble right now is that it’s largely a referendum on the state of the country and their ideas. A lot of people are voting Republican simply because they are unhappy with the economy. The Republicans represent change--and that's good enough.

Obviously, some voters really do find the Republican agenda appealing. But that's easy when the agenda consists largely of slogans like “lower deficits” and “smaller government.” The Pledge they published a few weeks ago was supposed to provide specifics, but it was laughably vague. And it's not mystery why. The buzzwords are great until you start talking about what they mean in actual policy terms.

Think Progress, which is part of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, recently produced a video that illustrates this dilemma nicely. It’s a montage of television interviewers asking Republicans promising smaller government exactly which programs they want to cut. The Republicans have nothing to say. And that's because the actual answers would amount to a drastic reduction in government services, the kind voters would likely reject.

Republicans can get away with that now because they're campaigning. But if they gain majority control, they'll have to govern--or at least make an effort at it. That will mean drafting actual proposals and subjecting them to analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, not to mention scrutiny from the media. 

Public opinion does change sometimes and, who knows, maybe once in power Republicans will find a way to pass an agenda consistent with their talking points. (They've been known, among other things, to silence government accountants that make unfavorable reports.) But that would require some serious political skills--and that brings me to the second benefit of Republican congressional control

2. It would raise the profile of the party’s legislative leadership, particularly would-be Speaker John Boehner and would-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

I don’t have specific polling information on either man’s popularity. But I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that neither man is a great party spokesman. Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but he gives a good speech and is sharp on television. I don’t think you can say either thing about Boehner or McConnell.

What's more, the two will be going head to head with President Obama, who for all of his recent political troubles remains among the most well-liked politicians in America. True, communications skills is just one element of leadership. But divided government, particularly in the two years leading up to a presidential election, means elected officials are going to spend a lot more time posturing for the voters than trying to corral votes in committee. My hunch is that Obama comes out the winner.

And what about the Democrats in Congress? What would minority status mean for them? Losing control of Congress would obviously mean losing power, staff, and the ability to shape the legislative agenda. But a change in the majority would also have one clear upside:

3. It would unite the Democratic caucus around a more coherent set of views and policies.

Over and over again in the last two years, division within the Democratic caucus has held the party back. The stimulus ended up smaller, which meant it created fewer jobs. The health care bill won't deliver most of its big benefits until 2014. The middle class tax cut, although wildly popular, never came up for a vote. In every single case, President Obama and the congressional leadership wanted to do more. But without the votes to get their way, particularly in the filibuster-constrained Senate, they compromised with conservative Democrats who wanted to do less.

A Republican rout in November could change that. Thanks to gerrymandering, liberals for the most part won’t be the ones voters turn out of office. Conservatives will be. And that will produce a Democratic caucus that, although smaller, is also more cohesive. Not only will the remaining members be more likely to share a worldview; they'll also be faced with a partisan enemy on the offensive. This is precisely what happened the last time Democrats suffered a congressional rout, in 1994.

Of course, the post-94 Democratic caucus was also more liberal, as I recall. And there are plenty of people who will argue that going further to the left would merely alienate even more independent voters. (I can already hear David Gergen, on CNN, arguing that the election results mean Democrats should move to the center.)

But keep in mind that it's awfully hard to sell the public on a set of beliefs when a sizeable chunk of the party doesn’t believe them or is afraid to say so publicly--and that’s pretty much the situation right now. For the most part, the actual substance of what Democrats have been proposing--whether it's prioritizing job creation over short-term deficit reduction or regulating the insurance industry or forcing banks to simplify credit agreements--remain popular. If Democrats can push these policies with a clear voice, they might be better off. 

***

Again, to be very clear, I am not saying minority status would be a net plus for the Democrats--or for liberals. Clearly it wouldn’t. And, to be brutally honest, I’m not even sure this analysis is correct. It’s speculation about politics, a topic I think is far less predictable and knowable than policy. But since Republican control of Congress remains such a real possibility, I feel like it’s worth thinking through the implications--and the important, if limited, ways it could actually help the liberal cause. 

Update: Jonathan Bernstein thinks I'm wrong. And he makes some pretty good arguments.

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