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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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