To those feverishly speculating, whether in glee or in terror, that the election results in Virginia and New Jersey portend loss of GOP control of the House of Representatives in midterm elections a year from now, I ask this question: What difference does that prospect make not as of January 2019 but between now and then? The analogy is imprecise, but if someone told you authoritatively you were going to be pushing up daisies 14 months from now, how would you handle the news? I think an answer many people would give would be: make the most of the time you have left.
For an example of how to go about doing that, one need look back no further than the first year of the Obama administration.
In 2009, the top priority for President Obama and the Democratic party in Washington was to pass a health care reform bill. They were trying to do so on the strength of their possession of the White House and strong majorities in the House and Senate. The 111th Congress opened with 60 Democratic senators, enough to defeat a filibuster and pass legislation without GOP votes—and indeed, on this topic, the GOP was providing none.
The incipient Affordable Care Act was hardly sailing with the political winds at its back. Even without Republicans in full-on opposition, the bill would certainly have been controversial. With the GOP united, public support came almost entirely from partisan Democrats. Pew found 47-48 percent opposition to health care reform from October to December 2009, with support only in the 34-38 percent range.
But the states of New Jersey and Virginia hold especially noteworthy elections the year after a presidential election. In 2009, Republicans switched both states’ governor’s offices to their column—very possibly, or so many said, a harbinger of GOP gains in the midterm elections. But an even bigger shock came in January 2010 when Republican Scott Brown, running explicitly against Obamacare, won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Brown’s election deprived Democrats of their ability to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Republicans were keen to proclaim the demise of health care reform by popular demand—a reprise of the collapse of a similar effort in the first two years of the Clinton administration, the most recent period during which Democrats controlled the executive and legislative branches. Democrats, in the GOP view, should get the message and abandon their efforts—or else prepare to pay a very steep price in the next congressional election.
I don’t think most Democrats really believed that pressing on with the reform effort even amid evident public resistance was actually going to cost them the House. But they quite rightly rejected the GOP’s political advice to give up—or to drastically scale back their ambitions. Though perhaps in the worst possible way, they dragged their historic legislation across the finish line, and the president signed his biggest domestic achievement into law.
But suppose many or even most Democrats did think that passing Obamacare was going to cost them the House. Would they have been correct to conclude that abandoning or shrinking their efforts would save them from the “shellacking” (in Obama’s post facto assessment) that they ended up taking in November 2010, losing 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats?
There are a couple of ways to look at the question. One is that losing your House majority, like death, is the end of the world for you. Another is that losing your majority might, under certain circumstances, be worth it—perhaps in order to enact legislation your party had long regarded as no less than the unfinished business of FDR’s New Deal.
Say whatever else you will, the Democratic House majority of 2010 went out in style. The caucus successfully undertook an effort that made a lasting policy change. To see that, one need only look at the failure this year of the GOP House and Senate majorities’ self-styled effort to “repeal and replace” the legislation. That word “replace” was doing a lot of heavy lifting—it referred to policy changes introduced under Obamacare that they were unwilling simply to undo. Many Democrats these days openly embrace a “single-payer,” nationalized health care system. Obamacare was a step on the way to that goal—imperfect, to be sure, but setting in place changes not easy to reverse.
To the extent that the “repeal and replace” effort failed because of GOP fear of the electoral consequences of anything they could put on the table—including the mildly deranged last-ditch attempt to solve the problem by throwing a bunch of money to the states with instructions to go figure something out—maybe a refreshing hypothesis about the state of political play is: What are you talking about? You’re already dead.
Consider the House majority gone. Consider an amazing opportunity to build your Senate majority to have gone up in smoke. Now what?
The last time Republicans were about to lose their House and Senate majorities was 2005-06. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were dragging on inconclusively, and the political danger for Republicans was palpable. Yet scraping through also seemed possible. Running for reelection in 2004, George W. Bush had campaigned on private accounts for Social Security. Congressional Republicans evinced little interest, and their other legislative efforts in a period in which they controlled Congress and the White Houseconsisted mainly of flattering their social-issues constituency (contributing to an impression of the party that didn’t serve them well with other constituencies come the midterm). The world did little note nor long remember what they said there or what they did there.
House speaker Paul Ryan has spoken on numerous occasions about his determination to have his conference ready for simultaneous GOP congressional and White House control so as not to squander the opportunity. His effort was evidently unsuccessful. It may even have been impossible. As all the votes to repeal Obamacare when there was no actual prospect of repealing Obamacare demonstrate, the problem is fundamentally different when you play for real stakes.
Or at least it is if you think you have a political future beyond the current moment. As it happens, I think the GOP would be better off politically going into the 2018 election having passed a tax cut than having tried and failed to pass one. But suppose it doesn’t really matter. Suppose it’s already over, the Democratic base having been well and truly energized in opposition to Donald Trump in a way that the GOP will never be able to energize its own base. It’s a midterm, after all; why does anyone think voters enthusiastic about Trump but casual in their general political engagement will turn out when he isn’t on the ballot?
So, as the Clash once asked, “When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come? / With your hands on your head / Or on the trigger of your gun?” Will the House GOP majority go down with a bang or a whimper?
The chance remains to set in place significant policy changes that Republicans believe would be good for the economy. I’m not sure whence came the impulse to create upheaval and chaos by eliminating the state and local income and property tax deductions, capping the mortgage interest deduction at $500,000, flirting with capping 401(k) contributions at a lower level, and taxing university endowment income. The desire to punish blue things? But you can’t find a serious economist from either party who thinks the corporate tax rate is about right and that the United States benefits from trillions of dollars in corporate profits sitting overseas because the tax code makes it senseless to repatriate them.
How about fixing that on your way out of town?