On Wednesday morning, The New York Times sent the following breaking news alert via its mobile app: “Obama and G.O.P. Speak of Cooperation.”
Beyond the utterly sad implication that politicians deciding to (heaven forbid) cooperate with one another warrants the title of “Breaking News,” the story that ran not just in The New York Times, but in all major news outlets, is correct factually — Obama and the G.O.P. did speak of cooperation. The truth is, however, that it won’t be Obama and the G.O.P. cooperating. Love ’em or hate ’em, the midterm election results will likely cause the Democrats in Congress to cooperate with the G.O.P. The difference is more significant than you might think.
Last week, I took a more pessimistic perspective: “The next two years will be a repeat of the last two: the only difference will be that Republican-authored legislation will be getting shut down instead of Democrat-authored legislation,” I wrote.
I was perhaps too cynical in my approach. Though the American people should not expect a fireworks show of political genius in the next two years, it is fair to say that I underestimated the potential and motivation of both parties, for two reasons. One deals primarily with the Republicans, and the other with the Democrats.
But first, the facts: In the House of Representatives, Republicans expanded their majority by 13 seats, a number expected to shrink to 10 after races that are still too close to call. In the Senate, Democrats lost their majority, with the Republicans expected to hold a 52-45 lead.
When it comes to newly and already elected Republicans in both chambers, the reason they will reach across the aisle in the next two years doesn’t boil down to one sentence or even one word. It boils down to one number.
I wrote last week that a large (24) number of Republican seats are up for election in 2016, compared to just ten Democrat seats, and that across the board, those elections take place in more Democrat-friendly states. Though I’m almost certain that Republican Party leaders did not read my column last week, what is certain is that they are aware of these numbers. They are also aware that, collectively, the approval rating of the current Congress stands at 14 percent, making them less popular than used car salesmen, colonoscopies and Nickelback.
With control of both houses, the Republicans must be careful in the next two years to distance themselves from these negative numbers if they wish to insulate themselves from a rather grim 2016 electoral map. They must recognize that the only way to do this is to do exactly what they have not done while in the minority in the Senate for the last eight years: reach across the aisle to convince the American people that they are not the Congress that was less popular with Americans than an operation that sticks a tube up … well, you know.
The Republicans must be bipartisan despite some in the party who view the 2014 midterms as a clear mandate, a repudiation of Obama and a message to seize back control of Washington from the destructive behavior of Democrats. They should temper this urge because this midterm electorate is far more conservative than electorates in presidential election years. The gap between voters under 30 and over 60 was the widest in 10 years, and though seniors made up 37 percent of people who voted, young people made up just 12 percent. If Republicans interpret this as an excuse to hold more votes to defund Obamacare and debate policies more about a political statement than helping the American people, woe be unto them when Hillary Clinton and the Democrats clean their House, pun intended, and Senate in 2016.
For the Democrats, things are slightly more complicated. A very morose President Obama, speaking at a press conference Wednesday, lamented that he heard the message sent by American voters. For many Democrats in the House and Senate, the President’s policies — including the rollout of Obamacare — were largely to blame for their defeat, something they have publicly acknowledged. In fact, Nov. 4, 2014, not the next inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, might go down as the day Obama functionally left office, and the day the reins were passed to Hillary Clinton.
In terms of power dynamics, it is said that the party out of power is more motivated than the party in power. With a Republican Congress now and no more elections, Obama is a lame duck largely out of power with no chance for an agenda (save for foreign policy), and the future of the Democratic Party now lies not with Obama, but with Democrat leaders in the Senate and House who have to save face for 2016 and beyond. It is those leaders, and not President Obama, who will truly be more likely to compromise with the Republicans, and who now have a good reason to do so: motivating the base for the 2016 elections.
If either party refuses to move to the center and compromise, they’ll have to enjoy listening to Nickelback on the plane home, while The New York Times breaks the news that they’ve been voted out of office.
Nathaniel Haas is a junior majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Fridays.