Tonight, Republicans will watch the election returns hoping for an upset takeover of the U.S. Senate. And if President Obama has any sense, he will be rooting for the GOP as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I would enjoy the epic Democratic humiliation symbolized by a Republican Senate takeover as much as the next guy - assuming the next guy isn’t Harry Reid. But that thrill would be short-lived as the realities of Washington politics set in. The GOP governing majority would be slim; there would be little chance of getting meaningful legislation passed, and no chance at all of getting it past the White House. No matter how the Senate races turns out, the American people are facing two years of gridlock, in which perception trumps policy. A fully Republican-controlled Congress is the best outcome for President Obama because, for the liberals, it would make him the only game in town.
The liberal-friendly mainstream media’s story line is much cleaner if the Republicans control both houses. The White House will then be the “thin blue line of sanity” against the newly energized congressional red tide. Like President Clinton after the 1994 election, Mr. Obama will be the sole focus of resistance to reform - or what they will call “preserving change.” Of course, initially, there will be some rough water and talk of primary challenges in the next presidential election, just as there was 15 years ago. But this will soon pass, and Mr. Obama’s faithful will return to the fold. If he could somehow trick the Republicans into shutting down the federal government again, so much the better.
But if the GOP takes only the House, as seems likely, the story line becomes more muddled, which favors the Republicans. The Senate - probably led by New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer - will block the most principled conservative legislation, denying Mr. Obama the opportunity to wield the veto pen dramatically because the most objectionable bills - from a liberal point of view - will never get to his desk. If the GOP takes nine Senate seats Tuesday night and forces Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be the tiebreaker on critical votes, so much the better - anything to get the gaffe-prone Mr. Biden in front of cameras. But even with an eight-seat switch, there will be enough balance in the Senate to block Mr. Obama from populating the federal judiciary with liberal extremists, and to bring a closer look at his radical nominees for important executive branch positions.
The White House will not engage in the kind of bipartisan cooperation that allowed Mr. Clinton to sign off on Republican-created balanced budgets, or the GOP-sponsored welfare reform bill that Slick Willy cynically said he would attempt to “fix” after the election. Mr. Obama and his team are too entrenched in their ideology to make any such deals, even if they could falsely claim credit for them later, as Mr. Clinton did.
Meanwhile, the Republicans in the House will be holding hearings and issuing subpoenas. They will be able to compel witnesses to appear and bring checks to the expansive executive power that the current Congress chose not to look at too closely. The American people may find out what Mr. Obama’s numerous secretive “czars” have been up to behind the scenes. They will learn more about the federal bailouts and where hundreds of billions of untracked taxpayer dollars went.
Since budget bills must originate in the House, the Republicans can force a practical freeze on government spending, hiring and salaries. And they can pass a series of principled measures that the Democrats are certain to block in order to sharpen the battle lines for a return to Republican governance after the 2012 elections.
Yes, it would be good to see a Republican Senate seated next year, but I’m sure Mr. Obama agrees.
James S. Robbins is The Washington Times’ senior editorial writer for foreign affairs and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).