The U.S. midterm elections have had almost everything, except a vision for governing.
Democrats leveled charges that hard-hearted Republicans would slice Granny’s Social Security and throw her off the Medicare rolls while denying younger women contraception. Republican critics refer to Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall as Mark “Uterus” for his emphasis on women’s issues.
A national campaign that will cost about $4 billion, thanks to outside groups unleashed by a Supreme Court decision, has featured little discussion of issues that will confront the next, likely Republican, Congress.
The absent agenda is tax reform, reshaping the Affordable Care Act — which won’t be repealed — or a long-term deficit measure dealing with entitlements and taxes or much-needed major infrastructure projects or whether and how to wage war against Islamic State.
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An election in which neither party advances ideas usually augurs poorly for getting much done.
The probability is that Republicans will win a slight majority in the Senate and add about 10 seats to their House majority. That means constant clashes between a Republican-run Congress and a lame-duck Democratic president. (The outlook isn’t much different, except for appointments, if Democrats retain a slim Senate majority still subject to the whim of the minority.)
The president complains that congressional Republicans’ only interest is opposing him; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said as much. Obama is angry about Congress and seems disengaged. Republicans dismiss arguments they are too negative; they seem to be in the driver’s seat now.
Yet there are incentives for each side to temper these attitudes.
Republicans don’t relish the prospect of losing the White House again in 2016; that would give Democrats control in 20 of the last 28 years. Preventing that outcome is complicated by the Republicans’ image with voters. “Just say no” works in midterm elections for the opposition party; it usually doesn’t in presidential contests.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, observed last week that if Republicans became the majority party in Congress, they would have to govern, and he offered some specific suggestions. Some of these were partisan pablum. He also tossed out notions such as the possibility of a major infrastructure bill paid for by drilling fees on public lands. That pay-for won’t fly but alternatives might.
House Speaker John Boehner hopes he can pick up more than 10 seats, in part so he won’t have to cater as much to the tea party element in his caucus. He'll have to roll the right wing on some issues and cut a few deals with Democrats.
To achieve anything substantive in the Senate will require bipartisan support, which would mean McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, would have to start talking to each other.
As for the president, his final two years will be part of any legacy. His leverage is limited, and foreign policy crises will be central to that assessment.
Obama can ill afford to stay in a funk and ignore the domestic front. He should perhaps consider a political trade-off to keep the guts of his Affordable Care Act — while chipping away at some of the little stuff — in return for giving the Republicans more on corporate tax reform, trade, infrastructure and even an immigration bill that’s a bit to the right of the bipartisan measure passed by the Senate.
A substantive down payment on immigration reform would help Obama’s legacy, and Republicans can ill afford another presidential election as the anti-immigration party.
“It may be possible to get some things done,” says former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. “It’s not probable, but possible.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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