It's either the morning after, or the mourning after -- take your choice.
Last night, Democrats got well and truly shellacked once again in a midterm election. It was so bad, it's pretty hard for Democrats to even attempt to gild the lily or spot that elusive silver lining. Republicans are consumed with glee, which they've well earned this year.
Because this was a rather momentous election with a power shift in the Senate, there is a lot to talk about when contemplating the aftermath. I'm just going to dive in and present my snap reactions to the new political situation, in no particular order. I will likely return to each of these subjects later on (in future columns) in far more detail, I should mention. For now, here are my disjointed thoughts on the aftermath of the 2014 midterm elections. Oh, and I should also state up front that I called at least three (and possibly even five or six) Senate elections wrong in my pre-election prediction column, but I think my House predictions will be less than ten seats off (possibly only five), when all the results are in. So I didn't do so hot in the crystal ball department this time around. So it goes.
Democrats' silver linings (such as they are)
Congratulations, Senator Shaheen. Well done. Scott Brown would have been truly annoying to have endured in the Senate.
Hiking the minimum wage won everywhere it was on the ballot, including four deep red states. Democrats, if they had had their act together, would have tried to nationalize this election on this one issue -- Democrats want a minimum wage increase, Republicans want to freeze it forever (or even abolish it). Look at the overwhelming poll numbers to see just how potent and non-partisan this issue is, and how popular it is pretty much everywhere in America:
Alaska - won (with 69 percent of the vote)
Arkansas -- won (66)
Illinois -- won (67)
Nebraska -- won (59)
South Dakota -- won (55)
Again -- four of those states are deep red states. Why Democrats don't make this a bigger issue is a mystery. This should be Item Number One on the Democratic campaign agenda from now on, in fact. It's an issue which cuts across party lines and has overwhelming support from the public. One party champions it, one party fights it -- it's pretty easy to draw the contrast.
The other good news from ballot measures last night -- and another one that more Democrats need to get out in front of -- was on marijuana reform. Medical marijuana passed in Guam (one of the earliest stories of Election Night). It failed in Florida, but got almost 58 percent of the vote (Florida sets a higher bar of 60 percent for such a ballot measure to pass) -- which is still a clear majority. But the biggest news of the night is that America will now have four states where adults can legally purchase and recreationally use cannabis. Voters in Oregon and Alaska followed the lead of Colorado and Washington, and more states are almost guaranteed to follow in the 2016 election -- it's really only a question of how many will do so, at this point.
This is the future -- a future where the War On Weed has been consigned to the history books. Democrats need to realize this and stop fighting their own base over the issue. Smart Democrats will realize the public appeal of getting out in front of legalization earlier, not later. Democrats will be able to easily draw a partisan line on this issue, too, since the other referendum on legalizing possession of recreational marijuana was in Washington D.C. itself. My guess is this is going to lead to an enormous fight in Congress (who holds the ultimate power in the District), with Republicans spouting fire. There will be ample opportunity to stand on the other side -- the side of the will of the voters.
The fever has not broken
After every election -- no matter which party does better, it seems -- there is an outbreak of rosy-tinted optimism from the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy. These are the people who were absolutely convinced that Jon Huntsman was going to win the Republican nomination for president, mind you, because he was so gosh-darned impressively centrist to the denizens of Washington cocktail parties.
Last time around, the talk was of "the fever having been broken." Who knows what metaphor they'll settle on this time? The one I've heard most (so far) is that "Republicans are now going to show they can actually govern," but it's not all that catchy, so there'll probably be a better one before the week is out.
These people, to be blunt, are dreaming. This is Fantasyland, folks. The fever has not broken, it is running rampant. There will be no singalongs of "Kumbaya" breaking out on Capitol Hill. It just ain't gonna happen.
Now, I'm not doubting the good intentions of Mitch McConnell. But you know what they say about good intentions and where they lead. McConnell is going to have the same problem John Boehner's had since 2010, except it will be even more acute. Think about it -- the Republicans have been operating under the agenda of "maximum obstruction" since 2010 in the House. The most prominent GOP senator is not McConnell but rather Ted Cruz, who is going to spend every waking moment positioning himself for his 2016 presidential run from this point onward. Maximum obstruction just worked wonders for Republicans at the polls, so they will draw the lesson that to win in 2016 they will need to move their obstruction into overdrive. Cruz will likely put together a bloc of five or six other Republican senators, and they will bluntly dictate terms to McConnell.
The Utopia of Republicans and Obama working together in a field of sunshine is a fantasy indeed. Will congressional Republicans strive to put bills on Obama's desk which he can actually sign -- and by doing so, score political victories and add to his legacy? No, they will not. Instead, just like in the House for the past four years, the Tea Party will be in control, and they are never in a mood to compromise one tiny little inch. That will be the dynamic for the next two years, and not the pundit's dream of grand bargains and the like. The only real open question is how many times the Senate tries to kill Obamacare (which you just know will happen).
Obama must move on immigration and appointments
The term "lame duck" is often tossed about in situations beyond its actual definition in American politics. We are now in a true lame-duck session of Congress -- the period between an election and the next Congress being sworn in. For Democrats in the Senate, this is their last hurrah for at least two years. This means spending all their time confirming any Obama appointees that are still in the pipeline, because my guess is that nobody will be confirmed for any appointment for the next two years.
President Obama has also painted himself into a corner on immigration, but he has already signaled today in his press conference that he will be moving forward on immigration reform by executive action alone, before the lame-duck period is over.
Barack Obama promised to move on his own on immigration reform earlier this year. Then he pushed the deadline for his action back from summer to "after the election." That's where we are now. There are valid arguments -- from the Democratic point of view, even -- both for and against Obama acting as he promised (twice) to do. The argument against acting is that Obama will "poison the well" with the incoming Congress (Republicans in particular) and they'll be so enraged that they won't work with him on anything else.
This is a ridiculous argument. To follow the metaphor to its skeletal end, this is not currently a well filled with sweet, thirst-quenching springwater. It has not been for some time. So much toxic waste has already been heaped into it that it is now one of those "bad water" springs you see in Western cartoons, with animal skulls heaped around it. In other words, the water is already undrinkable, and in fact lethal. Tossing a little more poison in isn't going to change that one way or another.
Hearing Republicans talk about relations with Obama it is like hearing a five-year-old talking about hating someone: "I hate you a million times! I hate you a million, billion times!! I hate you a million, billion, gazillion times!!!" Once you've reached full hatred, there's nowhere else to go, to put this another way. Superlatives cannot really be topped.
Republicans -- Tea Partiers in particular -- are going to fight everything Obama does, tooth and nail. Period. That's not going to change in any way if Obama follows through on his promises on immigration. If Obama does not act, does any sane person think Congress will pass any sort of comprehensive immigration reform in the next two years? So what, exactly, would change?
President Obama seems to have already figured this out. The only question is the timing of his action. My guess would be either close to Thanksgiving or close to Christmas.
It's time to go, Harry
Harry Reid needs to go. There, I said it.
Reid has already announced he'll be the next Senate Minority Leader, and it appears none of his lieutenants will mount a campaign to replace him. This is an enormous mistake. Reid will be facing re-election in 2016, and doesn't want to appear powerless if he decides to run for another term.
To be blunt, this is nothing more than putting personal ambition before party. Reid stands a good chance of losing in 2016, if Nevada's popular Republican governor decides to challenge him. He won't be running against a Tea Party fanatic, in other words, the way he did last time around.
Democrats will need someone with the skills Reid has of keeping his caucus united, but they will also require a forceful spokesperson for their party's position in the Senate. Reid used to be a boxer, but that was quite some time ago. These days, he resembles more of a Caspar Milquetoast when publicly speaking. Listening to Reid speak is a better way to fall asleep than Ambien, to put it another way.
Democrats will be in the opposition in the Senate for two years, until the election map heavily favors their retaking the chamber. But to retake the chamber, you've got to have a forceful and winning message for the voters. You've also got to inspire confidence. Would Democratic chances be better with Reid in control or perhaps Dick Durbin or Chuck Schumer? Who would you want making your case in an interview with the press? Reid's record of electing other Democrats to the Senate is now pretty dismal. With the loss of so many seats last night, Democrats need someone with less baggage. Harry Reid should not only step down from his leadership position, he should also announce he's not going to run again in 2016. That's a bit harsh, but that's how I see it.
What to expect next
And finally, there is one big piece of business left for Congress and the president to accomplish before year's-end. The federal budget was, earlier in the year, punted to the lame-duck session (since both Republicans and Democrats were scared of a big fight in the midst of a campaign). Something will need to be passed before Congress dissolves for good. But while there may be some partisan bickering, what is likely to happen is that Congress will punt once again, for a very short period of time. The rationale will be that the new Congress should really have some input, so a measure will pass to move the deadline maybe three months out, to March.
This will allow Congress to go home for the holidays, but it just sets up a gigantic fight next February. Since it'll be a budget bill, the Tea Party Republicans will move to attach every single one of their heartfelt desires to the bill under reconciliation rules (which allow no filibustering and can pass with only 51 votes). They will lard up the budget with so many odious things that Obama will almost assuredly veto the first bill that appears. What happens next is anyone's guess, but you'll probably start hearing about "fiscal cliffs" and "government shutdowns," unless someone comes up with a better metaphor this time around. Forecast for early Spring: stormy.
Mitch McConnell may actually pass a few things very early on next year that Obama can indeed sign. Most of these will be awfully "small ball" (to use an out-of-season baseball metaphor), however. They'll be largely symbolic nibbles around the edges of America's problems, and not fundamental change. By the time they get through the first budget crisis, there will not be much left for McConnell and Obama to even talk about, because the possibility of compromise will evaporate precisely when the mainstream media begins obsessing over the 2016 presidential race.
There will be talk of a "grand bargain" on lowering corporate tax rates later in the year, but it's hard to see a compromise hammered out. Then again, this is the biggest item on Wall Street's agenda, and many Democrats dance to that particular tune, so this one might actually come to pass.
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