Fun as yesterday’s results most assuredly were, it is important for Republicans to recognize that this is an election that the Democrats lost far more than an election that Republicans won. The promising young stars joining the ranks of congressional Republicans have the potential to help the party shape its agenda and its substantive message to American voters about how conservatism can improve their lives and their country, but they generally did not run on such a message in this campaign. (One of the notable exceptions, Ed Gillespie, came remarkably close to winning in Virginia thanks to his extraordinarily smart campaign but appears not to have made it.) Their arrival is cause for hope, but not satisfaction.
This campaign was about Barack Obama — about the fact that most voters seem to agree with Republicans that the Obama presidency is a failure at this point, and the fact that Democrats could not find anything to say about that and could not find any way to change the subject. But the fact that the election was about the president actually makes it difficult for both parties to learn some of the lessons it offers them — lessons that are about how to think about the post-Obama era soon to begin.
For Democrats, the election should in part be a warning about their overwhelming intellectual exhaustion. They have very nearly nothing to say to or offer the country at this point, and their approach to politics has been reduced to little more than a series of tired rote gestures and slogans disconnected from the present and the future. The cupboard is bare and the energy is depleted. That is President Obama’s fault in part, but it is also the fault of the Left’s broader failure (shared in common with the Right to some extent of course) to think seriously about some basic realities of 21st-century America.
This exhaustion is powerfully evident in the Democrats’ preparations for 2016, which at this point are astonishingly lacking in energy and intensity. The Democrats appear to have just one reasonably plausible presidential contender and may be embarking on an essentially uncontested and content-free primary in a non-incumbent year. This kind of extended yet empty process — no excitement and no tussle, just the long, grim coronation march of an uninspiring leader whose followers dearly hope is in fact “likable enough” — could seriously exacerbate their problems.
Hillary Clinton has some enormous structural advantages as a general-election candidate, to be sure: basically the benefits of incumbency (no real primary challenge and no bar of presidential plausibility to clear) without the key disadvantage of incumbency (being responsible for everything people don’t like). And she has some personal advantages: She is smart, tough, and savvy and has a capacity to learn from failure and adjust. But she does have other disadvantages of incumbency (people are bored of her and feel like she has been talking at them forever) and some disadvantages all her own: She is a dull, grating, inauthentic, over-eager, insipid elitist with ideological blinders yet no particular vision and is likely to be reduced to running on a dubious promise of experience and competence while faking idealism and hope—a very common type of presidential contender in both parties, but one that almost always loses. And as things stand now, she will have little of substance to run on, which makes it even harder for such a politician to win. The Democrats seem only vaguely aware of this problem. Yesterday’s results should wake them up.
For Republicans contemplating the coming years, meanwhile, the challenge in the wake of this election is to think beyond defining themselves against Obama. Both the intensity of the party’s confrontation with the president and the sheer power and centrality of the modern presidency in our system of government make that difficult.
The challenge brings to mind the peculiar victory speech that John Boehner delivered almost exactly four years ago, on the night Republicans regained a House majority in 2010. After laying out some of the general goals the new majority would pursue, Boehner told the audience:
While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people’s House, we must remember it is the president who sets the agenda for our government. The American people have sent an unmistakable message to him tonight, and that message is: “change course.”
Presumably, Boehner would offer the same caution in the wake of yesterday’s extraordinary Republican gains. The president controls the agenda, and hopefully the election will lead him to change course. That sentiment is to begin with a mark of the degree to which our political system has come to be dominated by the executive. Next January, Republicans will control both houses of Congress, three fifths of the nation’s governorships, and about 70 of its 99 state legislative chambers. That should mean the Republican Party is basically the nation’s governing party. But Republicans give every impression of still understanding themselves as the opposition party, because they do not control the presidency.
And it is true, of course, that without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (let alone a veto proof majority in both houses) Republicans can’t really get any laws enacted that Democrats are not willing to abide. But that does not mean that “it is the president who sets the agenda” in American politics. In fact, setting the agenda—provided they recognize they won’t be able to achieve much of it—is precisely what a reasonably unified Republican congress could do, and should try to do. They could play the key role in determining the questions that everyone in national politics has to answer, even if they could not determine the answers.
To do that well, Republicans will need to understand and to describe their efforts in these terms—to be clear that they are working to set the right agenda rather than that they are trying either to “prove they can govern” from Congress alone or to “sketch clear contrasts” with a president who will never be on the ballot again. Understanding their role as putting forward an agenda and pursuing it would help Republicans do both of those things while helping them avoid unrealistic expectations about either.
The key difference between the divided congress we have had and the divided government we will now have is that Republicans can now set the agenda, require Democrats to vote on the best of their ideas, and see which of them Democrats might agree with enough (or find painful enough to oppose) to actually bring them to fruition. That doesn’t mean that lots of Republican ideas get enacted, or even reach the president. The filibuster will prevent that. It means, rather, that those ideas get killed in Senate votes instead of getting killed by the Senate’s unwillingness to vote. And that’s a significant difference, because it puts both Republicans and (for the first time) Democrats on the record in a meaningful way.
There will be some things (like the Keystone Pipeline and repeal of some of the most unpopular elements of Obamacare, but maybe also patent reform and trade reform and other meaningful but less prominent measures the House has passed and the Senate has ignored) that the Democrats will find much harder to vote against in public than to kill in private, and so might reach President Obama and perhaps even get signed. That would be great, because it would do some good and start to show the public what the Republican agenda consists of and that some elements of it are now getting somewhere.
There will be other things (like the full and most partial Obamacare repeals and any replacement proposals, but also most energy, anti-poverty, education, tax, entitlement, regulatory, and other reforms Republicans might plausibly advance) that the Democrats would filibuster and stop. That would be good too, because it would further show the public what the Republican agenda consists of and that Democrats oppose things voters might like. All of that would help Republicans better formulate their policy agenda, make what substantive progress they can, and define themselves and their opponents on their terms.
That’s the sort of power that control of the Senate could give them if they decide to see what kind of agenda could get enough Republicans behind it. It’s real power and could be very important. But there is no reason to define the use of that power as “showing we can govern” or as “contrasting with the president,” as various Republicans seem inclined to do. It seems to me that people who choose these two ways of speaking may actually be talking about basically the same thing while thinking they are disagreeing, and may be picking two ways of describing it that are both less politically potent than simply saying that Republicans will pursue a conservative agenda and see where Democrats can join them.
The one means by which it would be possible to get Republican proposals through the Senate without a filibuster threat is the budget reconciliation process, which allows some kinds of legislation with budgetary implications to pass with 51 votes instead of 60. This process has therefore been particularly prominent in the arguments of people who describe the task of a Republican senate in terms of drawing contrasts with the president. That process has its uses in the circumstances Republicans will likely find themselves in next year, but these uses mostly have to do with giving a bit more prominence to some elements of a Republican agenda. It is very hard to imagine the president signing any legislation passed through reconciliation. If it is odious enough to Democrats to fail to get 60 votes, it will be odious enough to Obama to get vetoed. And if it’s not so odious to Democrats and can get 60 votes then it doesn’t need to be done through reconciliation. So the difference between regular order and reconciliation is the difference between getting a proposal killed in the Senate and getting it killed at the White House.
That makes it largely a public-relations question, and makes reconciliation less substantively significant than some seem to suggest. A veto of a reconciliation bill will get a good deal more attention than a filibuster of other legislation, so reconciliation should consist of those things Republicans most want to argue about in front of the public. If that means, for instance, that it includes repeals of the most obnoxious and unpopular elements of Obamacare rather than the whole of it (which probably couldn’t qualify for reconciliation in its entirety anyhow) that’s fine — force those fights that will do the most good for the cause of repealing and replacing that law going forward.
That’s how Republicans should think about reconciliation more generally. As a substantive matter, reconciliation is not more important than other legislation that will not become law. As a political matter, it might play a somewhat different and more prominent role than other legislation, and it should be thought about accordingly. Contrasting themselves with the president in particular should no longer be a higher priority for Republicans than contrasting themselves with Democrats in general and, more important, defining themselves and their agenda more clearly. So they need not stuff everything they care about into a reconciliation bill, or treat that mechanism as more important than it is.
Making effective use of the peculiar power they will now have won’t be easy, and Republicans will no doubt screw it up in various ways at various times. That’s unavoidable, particularly in the budget process. And of course, the president will also use his power to force some issues onto the table. If he goes ahead with an executive amnesty, for instance, Republicans should use the CR and budget process to stop him, forcing Democrats to decide whether they will publicly endorse his actions and forcing him to decide if he will risk a shutdown on behalf of such a brazen overreach after the shellacking his party has just taken from the public. But as a general matter, Republicans should not think that the president controls the agenda, or that the agenda should consist of just fighting the president.
Instead, while advancing what measures they can, they should see that this new arrangement of powers in Washington allows them (and requires them) to spend the next two years putting forward elements of their public case and policy agenda and preparing the ground to take the presidency and more fully assume the mantle of America’s governing party.
That doesn’t mean a leadership-led agenda in Congress, which would be very difficult to pull off anyway. If the House passed some of its key bills from the last Congress and the Senate now passed them too, Republicans would be well on their way to helping the public see the virtues of a conservative agenda, and could build on it from there. Is it so crazy to suggest that then different members with ideas could actually be allowed to have those ideas voted on and see if they go somewhere in committee and on the floor? Or that different Obamacare alternatives might be taken up, for instance? That a higher-ed agenda might take shape from the bottom up? That alternative tax reform ideas could be tried out on the members? That an anti-cronyist agenda might take shape even if some leaders didn’t vote for it?
That doesn’t amount to governing from Congress and it doesn’t amount to merely sketching contrasts. It amounts to doing the job of legislators, and daring legislators and a president of the other party to do their own jobs too for a change.
— Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center