In light of the Republican gains in Congress, many Democrats are left questioning both the future of politics on Capitol Hill and the future of their own party.
There has been a lot of focus on the raw numbers the Republicans have gained, and while many of these newly elected legislators are politically savvy, they have run races on a nearly singular focus on economic issues. Evocative of the 1994 Republican gains during the Clinton presidency, these candidates campaigned on platforms of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. However, the election of these narrowly-focused candidates may spell trouble for the Republican leadership.
Primarily, there is the issue that they have managed to keep their stance on social issues far more quiet than in other elections. While the GOP can count on support from these new faces for their initiatives on health care repeal and extension of tax cuts, they will tread on unknown ground when social issues such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gay marriage and other contentious debates reach Washington. Much of the support they praise so highly now could evaporate when these unknown candidates are forced to weigh in on non-economic issues.
However, in the more immediate future, the economy will undoubtedly be the focus, specifically the possible extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. President Obama has shown a willingness to negotiate with Republicans on this issue, seemingly willing to accept a compromise allowing for a two-year extension.
If the Republicans try to flex their newfound strength and push for extreme terms extending the tax cuts, including for those who earn over $200,000 per year, they will force the issue into partisan stalemate by pushing terms that most Democrats will simply be unable to accept. However, if they are willing to negotiate and keep their demands reasonable, they can keep this issue from becoming a strain on the recovering economy. The choice ultimately rests with the Republicans; pick a fight and drag down the economy with it, or act reasonably and show willingness to compromise.
It is my hope that Republican leaders such as current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t try to force the tax cut issue into an overblown debate to distract from the GOP’s recent concessions that — even with their electoral boom — they will be unable to act against issues such as health care that they so passionately argued against from the minority. Earlier this week McConnell took a step backwards from the strong stance on health care repeal, saying that repeal will be impossible in the short term and that the GOP will instead focus on “their new oversight powers” to keep pressure on Obama and the Democrats. Faced with weakening stances only days after what many consider to be an overwhelming electoral victory, Republicans could easily see the tax cuts as a chance for them to appear to be reformers fighting to save the average American in troubled times.
In truth though, the Republican stance on the tax cut extensions has always been to push for the protection of cuts for the very wealthy, never the cuts for the middle class. They have taken a stance against the tax credits included in Obama’s financial reform that have saved middle class Americans billions of dollars. If their objective is truly economic recovery and the well-being of all Americans, not just the wealthy, the GOP will have a great opportunity to demonstrate it. However, if they are out to protect the interests of the rich and distract from their wavering commitment to past promises, I would expect to see more of the partisan bickering and dramatic finger-pointing that have come to be the main policy outputs of the GOP.