Republicans worst fears were confirmed Thursday night. Barack Obama is still president and will be president for the next two years. Republicans are also leaning the bitter lesson that there is no such thing as lame duck as long as the president has veto power. What was supposed to be a time of electoral triumph for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell has quickly turned into the first test of whether the GOP can govern.
It wasn’t supposed be this way. On Election night, McConnell extended a hand of cooperation to Obama. The next day, McConnell made it clear that government shutdowns and playing with the debt ceiling were off the table. Boehner also reached out to Obama in the name of the American people wanting both parties to work together. All was for naught as Obama dismissed the election results and, figuratively, kicked sand in their faces.
Frankly, it is rather amusing to watch Obama give Republicans a good dose of their own medicine. For six years, the GOP has been waging a campaign to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. That’s what the entire birth certificate was all about. Over and over, Republicans have questioned Obama’s American bona fides. Now Obama is doing the same to Republicans by questioning the legitimacy of their election.
Unlike the bogus claims that Obama was not born in Hawaii, the president’s argument does have some validity. We just had the lowest turnout in 70 years and for the Republicans to claim they speak for the American people it is a stretch. At best the GOP can claim to represent the view of a majority of the small minority that voted. Moreover, the GOP did not run on an agenda. Unlike 1994, when Republicans ran on the Contract with America, Boehner and McConnell cannot claim to have support for any specific policies.
Oddly, the Democrats also did not run on a specific agenda. They simply decided to defy history and embarked on a futile effort to localize the midterms. Elections held during the 6th year of a presidency are always a referendum on whoever sits in the White House. The Democrats could only withstand the Republican assault by improving the president’s approval numbers. This could have easily been achieved by reminding the electorate about the state of the country the last time the GOP was in power. Things like the economy in free fall, rising foreclosures and unemployment, plummeting retirement accounts.
Instead, the Democrats chose to run away from Obama. Shot guns, railed against the EPA, and refused to answer whether they supported their party’s presidential candidate in 2012. The net result was clearing the way for Republicans to make the case that Obama was the worst president in the history of the world. More importantly, it demoralized the Democratic base. The strategist(s) who thought that the best way turnout the Obama coalition was to have Democratic candidates incessantly talk about their differences with the president should never be hired again.
Voters also seemed muddled and sent no clear message. They overwhelmingly supported Democratic initiatives like raising the minimum wage, even in red states. They voted down Republican initiatives like personhood for zygotes, even in red states. Yet, they voted for Republican candidates.
To summarize, we had an election with no mandate. No agenda. No clear message. Essentially we had an election about nothing. A Seinfeld election.
The choice not to present an agenda was a strategic move on the part of Republicans. Much easier to focus on the only thing that unites Republicans these days, their deep dislike of Obama. Trying to formulate an agenda would have just exposed party divisions. Consequently, a Seinfeld election was just fine by them. Their goal was to win control of the Senate while offering voters as little as possible.
Once in office, Republicans will work on putting an agenda together and prove to the American people that they can govern. Whether this strategy will work out for the GOP is yet to be seen. Tactics may get you in the door but governing still requires the consent of the people in a democracy.
What is already apparent is that a Seinfeld election works to the advantage of Obama. The GOP cannot credibly claim to have the backing of the American people for initiatives they never presented to the voters. Despite pundits declaring that Obama needs the GOP leaders in Congress to seal his legacy, it is Boehner and McConnell who need Obama to sign off on their proposals or else they will have nothing to show for their two years at the helm.
Obama sealed his place in history the moment he was elected. His signature legislation, ACA, is very likely to stay put as it enjoys the support of the insurance industry. He is not up for re-election. No more midterms to worry about. Obama is now free to dedicate himself to soothing his bruised ego and making Mitch McConnell a one term Majority Leader.