Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.
Voters get a chance in the middle of a President's first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn't last: very little of the famous "Contract" was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.
This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
--Majority control of the Senate.
--The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
--The fate of President Obama's final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
--Progress -- or the lack of it -- on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
--The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.
When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called "dark money," have spent record amounts -- more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That's on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.
Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don't think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.
Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.
There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.
If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.
On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.
The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.
The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn't the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.
President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in the remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don't require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.
On foreign policy, President Obama may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.
Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.
Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can't come up with some other names.
Terence Smith is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com