If the Senate flips in 2014, not much else is likely to change with it. Photo: Getty
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The 2014 US midterms don’t mean anything

Pundits and polls say the stakes couldn’t be higher. The reality is quite the opposite.

The political media’s handicapping of the 4 November midterm election has contributed to the impression, fostered by many partisans and commentators, that the stakes have never been higher. Jonathan Capehart, the liberal Washington Post columnist, says he wants to “warn” Democrats that “President Obama will be impeached if the Democrats lose control of the US Senate.” Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma believes a GOP Senate will finally blow the lid off “the greatest cover-up in American history” – that is, Benghazi. 

In fact, the stakes rarely have been as low as they are this year – even if Republicans do win back the Senate.

The 1994 midterm election produced dramatic political change: a Republican House majority for the first time in 40 years and a GOP Senate majority for the first time since 1986. GOP losses in the 1998 midterm, despite retaining the House majority, cost Newt Gingrich the speakership and delivered a rebuke to the party’s effort to oust President Bill Clinton for his sexual adventurism.

In 2006, Democrats swept away the GOP in both the House and Senate. With Obama’s election in 2008, Congress was prepared to pass health-care reform, a task that had proven impossible despite the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in the first two years of Clinton’s first term. In 2010, the Republicans surged back, retaking the House but not the Senate (owing largely to the GOP’s nomination of unelectably right-wing and strange candidates in several key states, not least Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada).

It’s quite possible that the GOP will pick up enough Senate seats in November to control the chamber. But the real potential for drama and consequence for the 2014 midterm now seems all but a dead letter – namely, that Democrats would somehow recapture the House. This was never a bet for the faint-hearted, as the historical trend favours gains for the opposition party (with exceptions like 1998). Yet the extraordinary tech prowess of Obama’s team in turning out voters for his re-election in 2012 at least raised the possibility that the campaign’s database, transmogrified from “Obama for America” to “Organizing for America”, could work magic in the midterm as well.

But that was before Obama’s second-term political fortunes took a turn for the worse, starting with the stubbornly lackluster economy, proceeding to the disastrous Obamacare rollout, and now with a deteriorating international environment and uncertainty about U.S. leadership. Not even the record-low disapproval of Congress has been enough to counterbalance the decline of Obama’s own disapproval rating and of Democrats’ prospects for pulling an epic upset.

Even a GOP victory in the Senate wouldn’t be enough to brand 2014 an election of consequence. This would make very little difference to the balance of power in Washington, which already has its two most salient characteristics carved in stone for the remainder of Obama’s term: divided government, and a very deep unwillingness to work across the aisle.

True, a GOP-controlled Senate would launch a few more investigations of the Obama administration’s misdeeds, real and imagined. But the House already has such investigations underway, and with all due respect to “the world’s greatest deliberative body”, an investigation that proceeds with support strictly along party lines is no more credible when the Senate is doing it. The confirmation process for judicial nominees was going to slow down in the final two years of the administration anyway. Other administration appointments simply don’t matter all that much this late in the term, and even a GOP-controlled Senate will face pressure to approve some nominees for appearance’s sake.

Legislation that passes the GOP House will get consideration in the Senate rather than the high-handed dismissal with which Reid has greeted it. Yet the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes for legislation to proceed in the Senate remains intact, and it’s unclear that a GOP Senate majority would blow it up – especially since Obama can veto anything that Congress passes. And he will. Neither the House nor the Senate has the capacity to override a presidential veto if his vote becomes a test of partisan loyalty; Democrats will surely be able to muster one-third of the House or Senate to sustain a presidential veto.

Obama might find himself in the position of vetoing politically popular legislation, especially if something came to his desk with enough support from Senate Democrats to get past a filibuster. But this assumes a GOP-dominated legislative process is, in fact, capable of producing popular legislation. That’s not clear, especially if social-issues conservatives seize the initiative.

Let’s suppose, though, that Congress passes an increase in the defence budget, currently under severe strain from sequestration. Such a bill might indeed be popular, especially with international instability on the rise. On the other hand, the administration would have little difficulty describing such a GOP-crafted bill as unbalanced and out of sync with other national priorities (ie, Democratic priorities). Such an argument would be convincing to most Democrats, and that’s enough.

Each party keeps looking to the next election to provide a decisive edge, but elections aren’t doing that. If the Senate flips in 2014, not much else is likely to change with it. As long as both sides see greater political advantage in inaction than in working together, there is no way out of this polarized, mistrustful standoff. And if Democrats have become all but invincible running for president, while Republicans, for structural reasons, keep holding onto the House, this might be the state of affairs for quite some time.

Tod Lindberg (@todlindberg) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.