By Sam Fraser, Managing Editor-in-Chief
The political landscape of our nation changed drastically three weeks ago, on Tuesday, November 4, when the Republican party took control of the Senate in the midterm elections. The Republicans gained 8 seats, winning elections in key competitive states like Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina, to occupy a total of 53 seats in January. The Democrats lost 8 seats and lost almost every seat that was considered competitive–that wasn’t safe for one party or the other–with the exception of New Hampshire. The Louisiana seat will be decided in a runoff election in December.
Republicans maintained and strengthened their grip on the House, where they gained a net of twelve seats.
As with almost everything that occurs in American politics today, the weeks following the election have seen greatly polarized reactions from the right and left.
There has been much rejoicing by the right, who tend to view the election results as a repudiation of the Obama administration’s policies, and and as a mandate of support for conservative ideals.
On the left, however, many are quick to point out that given the seats in contest, the election was predetermined toward a Democratic loss. Many of the Democrats whose seats were up for reelection had been elected in the liberal fervor of the 2008 presidential election in states that usually lean further to the right. They also point to lower voter turnouts in their key demographics of young people and minorities, a regular midterm phenomenon.
While the extent of the Democratic party’s losses went beyond what most expected, historically, they are hardly an anomaly–it is highly atypical for the party in the White House to maintain control of the Senate through a President’s second midterms.
November 4’s results have, however, spurred mass speculation as to what the next two years, and the 2016 presidential election, hold in store for America. Such speculation tends to accentuate broad ideological differences between the parties, which do not always connect with actual policymaking. In this process, the issues being legislated on become more abstract, and it is hard to discern what an election will mean in terms of actually policy produced.
Voters in this election noticed this. 60 percent said they saw a decline of issue-based discussion in this election, according to a Pew Research poll.
In an effort to counter this effect, we can break down the implications of this year’s midterms by individual issues:
Jobs & The Economy
Despite continued talk of a slow and troubled economy, the numbers show that the US economy is actually doing quite well. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, nearing pre-recession levels. Real GDP growth (which accounts for price changes) has risen to an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2014.
Despite these economic successes, the Democrats and President Obama apparently failed to convincingly give themselves credit on this issue. A majority of American voters rank jobs and the economy as their most important issue, and in this election, despite the opportunity for the Democrats to seize credit for the recovery, Republicans did a much better job harnessing economic issues to their favor.
According to statistics by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of voters prefer Republican policies for jobs growth, besting support for the President’s policies by 6 percent and the “no difference” option by only 3 percent.
It is likely that many voters recognize that the government does not have as much influence over the performance of the economy as politicians tend to imply, and thus control of Congress has done little to change the economic outlook for most Americans.
As far as active policymaking, Republicans may seize on their newfound power and on the nation’s economic health to begin stripping away regulations–especially ones like the Dodd-Frank Act that regulated the financial industry in response to the 2008 crisis.
While deregulation following a recovery is typical, and free-market policies can do a lot to improve economic growth, the Republicans would be wise not to be overzealous in their efforts. If pushed too far, the loosening of regulations can contribute to the boom and bust cycle, as it did leading up to 2008.
Despite what politicians and pundits on either side of the aisle claim, it is still hard to say if the Affordable Care Act will fulfill its purpose and how it will affect American society. While the law clearly has significant issues to be worked out, it is worth something that it has already provided insurance to millions who were previously lacking–and with the new open enrollment period, that number is going up.
Public opinion, however, is against the law by a slim majority of 51 to 45 percent. Many Republicans campaigned on repealing the law, something that, due to the presidential veto, they will absolutely not be able to do.
Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pragmatically acknowledged this fact during his campaign, saying that he would instead seek to focus on modifying portions of the law. He was very soon made to backtrack on these comments, however, by the far-right of his party, which continues to use the goal of a repeal as a rallying cry. Polls show Republicans to be fairly evenly split on the two approaches.
Though Republicans currently enjoy a slim majority on this issue, if they wish to hold this in the long-term, they will need a viable proposal of their own, as Americans are not likely to stay satisfied with the fact that our healthcare system has been ranked among the worst in the developed world.
Immigration has been another hot-button issue in this election. President Obama has been pushing for immigration reform for a while, and tension over the issue flared up this past summer as a new influx of undocumented migrants, including many women and young children, poured into the US from Central America.
The President has pushed for comprehensive reform to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants and provide pathways toward establishing citizenship. He has threatened that if Congress cannot present him with an agreeable bill, he will do what he can by executive action.
The merits of such an ultimatum are certainly questionable, and congressional Republicans have responded with probably empty threats of impeachment–but they’d be foolish to do so, as such an effort would cast Congress as adversarial and actually boost the President’s approval ratings, as it did with Bill Clinton.
Regardless, Republicans will need to find an immigration solution that doesn’t focus on deportation (or “self-deportation”, for that matter). Without this they will not be able to win the increasingly important Hispanic vote, especially come 2016.
Some have said that the biggest loser on November 4th was not the Democrats, but the environment. While this may be a slight exaggeration, it probably has a little something to do with the fact that Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will soon be the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is a hard-line climate change denier, who has gone so far as to say that if climate change were real, than it would be a good thing, for it would make the weather nicer.
The fact that this man holds one of the most important positions on environmental policy in the United States is a travesty. Allowing him to occupy this position is comparable to choosing a wolf to oversee a flock of sheep.
Hopefully, the 114th Congress will either choose not to, or fail to, turn back the positive environmental policy steps that have been taken during the Obama administration. This is one area where public opinion has turned firmly against the Republicans, with polls in 46 states by USA Today and Stanford University showing that in each state, at least 75 percent of the population acknowledges the existence of climate change, while at least 67 percent support increased emissions standards to combat it.
The Republicans will soon be faced with a choice, as the Obama Administration has just reached an agreement on carbon emissions-reduction with China. That the US and China lead in the effort to stop climate change is of paramount importance, and if the Senate fails to ratify this agreement–the first of any China has made, they will literally be putting the entire world in jeopardy.
This is another issue where the Republicans will have to change their line for 2016. While climate-change denial used to be essential for a GOP candidate to be nominated and elected, many have had to soften their views. The standard Republican response for 2014 climate questions seems to have been to say “I’m not a scientist.”
This answer is the ultimate cop-out. If politicians refused to talk about every subject they are not an expert in, the only thing we’d be hearing on Capitol Hill would be crickets.
If between now and 2016, the government is held in deadlock and compromise cannot be achieved, it will not constitute a failure for the President, or a failure for Congress, but a failure for America.
Foreign policy has been a major point of criticism by Republicans against the Obama administration. They have accused the President of weakening the US’s international standing and distancing us from our close allies. It is hard to say how a Republican senate will reshape our foreign policy, given their power to approve or deny treaties. We are certainly less likely to see a nuclear compromise treaty with Iran, which didn’t exactly look probable before.
Congressional Republicans will likely be keeping a close eye on the administration’s actions overseas, especially on his handling of the Islamic State, and could employ extensive investigations as a weapon against the President.
This issue was not been talked about a great deal by either party in this election, and will likely not be receiving much focus in the next two years. Of course, many Republicans oppose the national Common Core standards and may potentially seek to curtail their implementation–although this is largely up to the states.
While it was not a major campaign point among Republicans, they could use this time to seek to introduce a school-choice bill, which could potentially undermine public education at a national level.
The President’s proposal of universal public preschool will have to be put on the backburner for the time being.
These midterms may have heralded the end of elections that can heavily rely on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as a deciding factor. Republicans like Cory Gardner (R-CO) seem to have figured out that if they merely moderate their positions on such issues, they can take the wind right out of their opponents’ arguments. Garner’s incumbent opponent, Mark Udall, (D-CO), certainly felt the effects of this approach, losing his seat after being accused of running a one-dimensional campaign on abortion rights.
While the Democratic positions on these issues are becoming increasingly popular, especially on a national level, many Republicans have responded by simply not talking about social issues or by downplaying their importance. If this continues to be successful, these issues will not be enough to guarantee secure Democratic wins, as they have helped to do in the past. Democrats will have to rethink the role of the social issues in their strategy for the 2016 elections.
ISIS and Ebola
These two totally unrelated issues can be grouped together, as they fall under a broader category: fear politics. Both were employed by candidates, primarily Republicans, to persuade Americans that they are not being kept safe. These persuasions were accompanied by highly misguided calls for a travel ban on Ebola-afflicted countries.
The way these issues were exploited reveals a disgusting leadership deficit in American politics. Rather than leading calmly and rationally, the representatives that used these tactics chose to follow and even stimulate public fear and hysteria. To think that this played any significant part in putting anyone in office this year is thoroughly repugnant.
Going Forward: 2016 and Beyond
Due to their inherently regional nature, the midterm elections cannot function as an effective predictor of the Presidential election to come in two years. The character of national elections is completely different, and 2016 will return to Democrats many of the advantages that they lost in 2014.
Among these, Democrats can look forward to higher voter turnouts among young women and minorities, and their national advantage on issues like the environment, gay marriage and reproductive rights.
However, much of what will shape the 2016 elections is still to be determined in the coming two years, and it is up to the President and the new Congress to decide what the nation will look like in two years.
The current 113th Congress, which will retire in December, has earned its place as the least productive legislature in American history. In the wake of this, the majority of Americans would like to see compromise between the new Republican Congress and the Democratic President.
On either both sides of the aisle, partisans are already gearing up for battle in 2016. Many want their branch to stand firm in the next two years, and not make any concessions to the other side. Others are already thinking of how to frame this Congress or this President as a failure, and solidify their party’s chances in the next election.
What these ideologues seem to forget is that our government is brilliantly, and sometimes frustratingly designed to ensure that no one branch can carry out the functions of the state entirely on its own. If between now and 2016, the government is held in deadlock and compromise cannot be achieved, it will not constitute a failure for the President, or a failure for Congress, but a failure for America.
Opinion stories reflect the views of the writer and are independent of the Acalanes Blueprint and the school itself. Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org