As this is written, we do not know the outcome of Tuesday’s elections — and may not for some days, due to recounts and court challenges. Nevertheless, we can safely predict certain things will occur on Wednesday.
First, if Democrats don’t at least retake the House, many pundits will say that the whole party might as well close up shop. With such an incredibly favorable political environment, they will say, Democrats will never be in a stronger position to regain control. Therefore, failure to do so must mean that the Republican advantage is so strong in terms of money, organization and gerrymandering that Democrats could be locked out of control for perhaps decades to come.
Second, anything less than a blowout victory of, say, 40 seats in the House and six in the Senate for the Democrats will be viewed as a de facto victory by Republicans. If Democrats only get the 15 seats they need for control of the House and don’t get the Senate, Republicans will portray this as a massive defeat, since they should have done so much better given their advantages.
Third, the "Blue Dog" Democrats — moderates and conservatives from red states — will suddenly find themselves to be the most popular guys in town. There were 37 of them in the last Congress and there probably will be more in the new one. Therefore, the Blue Dogs will hold the balance of power. They can all expect many invitations to the White House over the next two years.
Fourth, there will be much talk about Republicans raiding the Democratic side for votes from members in red states and possibly putting together a conservative coalition that could effectively run the House despite Democratic control, as was the case in the 1950s. Expect Republicans to shine the glare of publicity on Nancy Pelosi and make her a foil the same way Democrats used Newt Gingrich. As representative of possibly the most left-leaning district in America, it is inevitable that she is going to say and do things that are going to make every red state Democrat cringe.
Fifth, Republicans will repeatedly proclaim that they still control the White House and therefore the national agenda. The experience of Republican control of Congress during the last six years of the Clinton administration shows that it is a poor substitute for having the presidency. And Republicans have lots of experience controlling the White House while Democrats had Congress. Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had little difficulty pursuing their agendas despite Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress during their administrations.
Sixth, expect President Bush to remind Congress that he has veto power. Republicans undoubtedly will retain enough seats in both the House and Senate to sustain all such vetoes. Or they may simply kill Democratic bills in the Senate with filibusters, just as Democrats have been killing Republicans measures for years even though Republicans today have a bigger margin than the Democrats will have next year.
And when Democrats fail to act on Republican initiatives, expect Bush to denounce the do-nothing Congress as Harry Truman did back in 1948. Moreover, Bush can create showdowns with Congress on issues where he has the stronger hand, as Bill Clinton often did, putting Democrats into no-win situations that will quickly erode their support.
Thus, we see that even if Democrats retake control of the House and maybe the Senate as well, there are many challenges that await them. The Republicans will still have a lot of leverage against Democratic initiatives. And let us not forget that everything that goes on in Congress the next two years will be against the backdrop of a presidential election in 2008. It is quite possible that a Democratic victory in Congress this year will actually forestall what otherwise would have been a White House victory in 2008.
Many political observers believe that voters basically like gridlock, with different parties controlling the White House and Congress. Thus, ironically, Democratic control of Congress for the next two years may give Republicans just the edge they need in 2008 — especially given the president’s overwhelming role in foreign policy and the importance of that issue in today’s world.
Remember, too, that Democrats thought their Senate victory in 1986 marked the beginning of the end for Republicans. They quickly moved to investigate Iran-Contra and pass liberal legislation. But the hearings went nowhere and the bills were vetoed. Two years later, voters elected Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, to the White House. I believe that they did so in part to put a check on the Democratic Congress, as they did so often in the postwar era. Indeed, I think that Democratic control of Congress has the potential to rejuvenate Bush’s presidency, just as Republican control gave new life to Clinton’s.