Electoral math is unforgiving. The Democrats had twenty-one seats up for election yesterday. Seven of them were in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Midterm elections typically attract fewer voters, and those who go to the polls are older, whiter, and less congenial to Democrats. The president’s approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent. Add all that up, and you get a convincing GOP win in the 2014 elections. Here are three quick thoughts on what it all means.
1. Republicans Won Big—But Not That Big. Republicans took back control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. They can now set the legislative agenda. But that doesn’t mean they now have the ability to dictate legislative outcomes. Even if the currently undecided races in Alaska and Louisiana go the GOP’s way, Republicans will still be short of the sixty-seat supermajority needed to get most legislation through the Senate. Democrats can to use the same tactics Mitch McConnell perfected when he was minority leader to frustrate him as majority leader. Republicans will work hard to entice Democrats to defect on critical issues. But that strategy may be difficult to implement. Yesterday’s election swept away the most politically moderate and electorally vulnerable Senate Democrats. Those remaining are more liberal and hold more secure seats. Even if the GOP can get the Democratic defectors it needs to hit sixty votes, Obama can wield his veto. So he and the Democrats remain legislatively relevant.
2. Partisanship Will Intensify—And So Will Internal GOP Tensions. We could get the optimist’s scenario in which yesterday’s vote breaks the partisan gridlock in Washington. The White House and congressional Republicans could decide that it is in their interest to find common ground. Some issues on which deals might be struck include tax reform, infrastructure, and trade. If all the political stars align, there could even be agreement on entitlement reform.
However, the pessimist’s scenario is more likely. Republicans didn’t embrace split-the-difference politics after a bruising electoral loss in 2012, so they probably won’t embrace them after a big victory in 2014. The tall price they demand may be higher than President Obama is willing to pay. Moreover, internal divisions could hobble the GOP’s ability to negotiate. Tea Party Republicans and establishment Republicans disagree on basic issues such as the size and role of government, as the debate over reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank shows.
House and Senate Republicans also face different political incentives. What sells in a carefully drawn congressional district in a Red State doesn’t sell in a Blue state. And Senate Republicans know that the electoral math that worked for them in 2014 will work against them in 2016. They will have 24 seats up for election compared to only ten for the Democrats, and they will be defending seats in seven states President Obama won twice and two he won once. The higher and more Democratic-leaning turnout that comes with a presidential election only makes their job harder. As a result, the negotiations between the House and Senate could be as interesting as those between Congress and the White House.
3. Tuesday’s Vote Hampers President Obama on Foreign Policy—But Less Than You Might Think. President Obama clearly has a harder task now that Republicans will control the Senate. His nominees will face a tougher road to confirmation, administration officials will testify before more adversarial committees, and unfriendly legislation will no longer die in the Majority Leader’s office.
But that doesn’t mean that the primary say over foreign policy has shifted from the White House to Capitol Hill. Presidents have greater freedom to act in foreign policy than they do on domestic policy, both because of their specific constitutional authorities and because of their ability to take the initiative. And they wield the veto. Congress last overrode one on foreign policy in 1986.
The precise impact that the switch in Senate control has on foreign policy will vary by issue. Where President Obama needs Congress to act and his policy preferences align with the GOP’s, progress is possible. A possible deal on trade promotion authority is a case in point. Conversely, where Obama needs congressional cooperation and his policy preferences diverge from the GOP’s, he can go only as far as his executive power and appetite for political confrontation take him. Immigration reform and a nuclear deal with Iran that requires lifting sanctions fall into this category.
And on some issues the change in Senate control will have little if any impact. Democrats and Republican both want to find a way to relax the squeeze sequestration has put on defense spending, but they can’t agree on how to do it. The Senate’s appetite for consenting to treaties like the Law of the Sea was limited even before Tuesday’s vote. And many Republicans are as skeptical as President Obama and most Americans about the wisdom of becoming embroiled in Iraq and Syria. So while they will criticize what they see as the flaws in his strategy for dealing with ISIS, they won’t be legislating a new one.