Some say I’m optimistic about politics. They’re right, but my optimism is really just a defense mechanism I’ve developed to keep myself from getting depressed about America’s political future. Some liberals let the Bush presidency turn them into cynical trolls, but I survived by convincing myself that brighter, more reasonable years were ahead.
Until recently, this habit of optimism kept me hoping that the economy would improve enough by November to allow Democrats to keep control of Congress and spend another two years checking items off Obama’s agenda. Alas, this is looking increasingly unlikely as the economy takes its sweet time getting back on its feet. Even Robert Gibbs admits that the Republicans are capable of taking back Congress this fall. My cynical liberal brethren may be a miserable lot, but they’re in better touch with the reality of American politics than I am.
So, to touch on the question Uncle Jim raised in his post yesterday, what will happen if the Republicans gain control of Congress?
I predict that such an event would actually calm things down in Washington, and would benefit the Democrats in some ways. Uncle Jim raised some terrifying possibilities: that they will shut down the government, will cut funding for social programs, will impeach Obama, will repeal healthcare reform. I doubt any of these will occur.
After the Republicans took Congress in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, they failed to agree on a budget with Bill Clinton, so the government shut down for a while. They thought it would appear that they were taking a stand against Clinton’s style of governing, which the American people elected them to do, but it backfired. The American people saw them as agitators, and Clinton received a boost in popularity and clout. I doubt Republicans would make that mistake again. Shutting down the government would also be risky during a recession as great as ours, when government workers are already complaining about forced vacation time and millions of unemployed are depending on government checks.
The current economic crisis would also make it difficult for Republicans to cut social programs, but they don’t have the balls to do that anyways. Republicans have always talked about eliminating “big government” programs so that Reagan’s ghost will no longer have unfinished business on Earth and can finally depart for the spirit world. In reality, these programs are so important to millions of Americans that reducing them is impossible. The Republicans might make a few token efforts, like Bush did when he proposed that preposterous rehaul of Social Security, but they will mostly carry on as they always have by pretending to be committed to shrinking the federal government while actually expanding it.
I can’t even think of anything they would impeach Obama for, unless they indulge the wackier members of their party by calling his citizenship into question.
Repealing healthcare reform is something I’m actually worried about. There isn’t a Republican in Congress who wouldn’t like to be able to brag to his voters that he helped repeal the biggest expansion of the federal government in decades. However, even if the Republicans gain control of the Senate, they will not have a filibuster-proof majority, and I have faith that even the Democrats who were wary about healthcare reform will fight as hard as they can to keep it from being repealed or toned down. It was, after all, the Democratic party’s greatest legislative achievement in decades, something that Democratic leaders have been hoping to accomplish since before many members of Congress were born. For it to be undone would bring great shame to the party.
Also, despite polls showing that most Americans do not like the bill that was passed, I have a feeling (not based on fact) that most Americans wouldn’t like for it to be repealed. A large majority of Americans realizes that our healthcare system is a mess and that something needs to be done – that’s part of the reason Obama was elected. The drafting of the reform bill involved so many compromises to satisfy enough congressmen to get the necessary votes that what resulted doesn’t completely satisfy anyone. Still, it is an attempt at reform for a healthcare system that desperately needs it. It took years of effort to get passed, and even then it was partly luck. Decades may pass before another chance at healthcare reform comes along. If the Republicans ever get the chance to repeal the bill, I think the American people would see it as a step in the wrong direction and would not give it their support.
Anyway, with every month that goes by the healthcare bill becomes more entrenched in the lives of Americans. Before long, it will be as untouchable as Medicare or Social Security. Still, it is likely that the Republicans would make sure the bill is implemented in the least effective way possible.
The reality of what would happen if the Republicans gain control of Congress isn’t as thrilling as many imagine. Washington would probably be a lot like it was after the Republicans took Congress during Clinton’s term. Like Clinton, Obama would have to tone down his agenda – although much more, because he isn’t as moderate as Clinton. No groundbreaking bills would be passed. It seems hard to believe considering how rancorous Washington has been the past few years, but giving some power to the Republicans might calm things down.
It would be painful to see Obama’s ambitions thwarted or watered down. We would probably have to wait years before a substantive climate change bill could be passed. But we could take solace in the fact that Obama has already racked up some great successes. It might be a relief to have Republicans in control of part of the government anyway – Democrats will no longer have to shoulder all the blame for the slowly recovering economy. Obama’s chances in the 2012 election might actually be increased.