- - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Midterm elections are about incumbent presidents even when they aren’t on the ballot. President Obama acknowledged this when he declared that “every single one” of his policies would be up for a vote Tuesday even though his name wouldn’t be on anybody’s ballot. On election eve, the White House hedged with the claim that since many of the closest Senate races were in states Mr. Obama didn’t carry two years ago the results had to be taken with salt.

Whether with a grain, a pinch or an entire shaker, Americans delivered Mr. Obama a rebuke. George W. Bush called the rebuke he was handed in 2006 “a thumpin’.” Bill Clinton got his in 1994. Now voters have graded Mr. Obama’s performance as harshly as they could and delivered “a shellackin’.” Some Democrats found shelter, but America clearly flunked the president.

This morning, Mr. Obama has a choice. He can double down, as his aides have predicted he would. He can come out with guns blazing to implement as much of his agenda as he can with questionable executive orders and continue to shun compromise with Congress. Or he can emulate Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who, faced with a divided government, succeeded with reasonable compromise.

When Mr. Clinton’s party lost control of Congress in 1994, he lost the ability to set the agenda. Without the Senate or the House, Democrats couldn’t block legislation. Mr. Clinton signed much of what the new Republican Congress sent him, claiming that reforms in welfare and the deficit were his ideas in the first place. George H.W. Bush, with control of neither House nor Senate, was maneuvered into unwanted positions by congressional leaders as well.

Mr. Obama has undercut his bully pulpit and the ability to go over the heads of House and Senate leaders with an appeal to the public. He has already talked too long about too much. Most Americans have tuned him out, even walking out on him at campaign rallies.



Joe Biden, who served in the Senate under both Republican and Democratic presidents before he was elected vice president, suggests that he and the president are willing to compromise. Mr. Biden may have been talking out of school again. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on election eve that the election “won’t change [the president’s] leadership style.” If true, gridlock will continue, and there won’t be progress on immigration, tax reform and how to deal with the surging Islamic State (or ISIS).

The Republicans have choices to make, too. Fairly or not, the Grand Old Party hasn’t made it clear what to expect. Now there must be more than just being “the not Obama” party. Republicans must advance an alternative to Obamacare and the president’s proposals on immigration, energy and taxes. Midterm elections are mostly about the past, and presidential elections are about the future. If the Republicans expect to do as well in 2016 as they did this year, they must persuade a skeptical public that they can do better than the Democrats.

Good policies make good politics. The next two years will be the time to present a winning vision to the American people. The campaign of 2016 must be a campaign of ideas, not personalities; of specifics, not attack ads; winning by brains, not feet, as important as the ground game always is.

The Republicans will set the course, or someone else will. For Mitch McConnell and John A. Boehner, it’s put-up or shut-up time.

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