Friday, November 5, 2010

Midterms and Moderation

In the frenzy of international coverage on the U.S. midterm elections, voices on either side of the Atlantic are starting to turn from frenetic excitement to more cool-headed thinking on what lies ahead for American politics--and their effect in the world.

The latest post from Gulfstream Blues paints a damning picture of the new make-up in Congress, where Republican candidates won six seats in the Senate and a whopping 67 in the House of Representatives. But Democrats managed to hang on to their majority in the Senate, and have a steady ally in Obama; As most bills pass from the House to the Senate and then to the President, the new GOP-heavy House still faces tall hurdles in getting the Washington political machine to crank its way. 

And the government shake-up may still be feeling the first tremors of the 2010 partisan earthquake. Some House Democrats have joined fed-up Republicans in calling for Nancy Pelosi to resign. Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and superlative bête noire of conservative circles around the country, has become increasingly seen as a stale mouthpiece of the Democratic Party. 

Growing rumors place Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) at the top of the Democratic Party's leadership list, though his record is considered too moderate by many progressives under the Democratic party banner. But no clear alternative has emerged, giving Hoyer a strong shot at clinching the Democratic leadership despite some of his party's misgivings. A choice like Hoyer may bring his party's side of the rapidly partisan  Congress toward the middle, which may neutralize some of the incendiary rhetoric heard in the election run-up. Then again, the fiscally conservative coalition of "Blue Dog" Democrats suffered heavy losses Tuesday, which may remove a stabilizing force from Washington's already polarized atmosphere.

Now that the Republicans have poured into Congress (the biggest victory in 70 years, writes The Washington Post), key questions have risen on message and how much the party can realistically expect to accomplish. The "Party of 'No'" has been surprisingly effective at stonewalling much of Obama's initiatives, stirring ire from within the country and baffled confusion from without. 

Yet Republicans can't get too ambitious, or the electorate will throw them out in 2012. Nevertheless Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) publicly stated Thursday that his aim is to "deny President Obama a second term in office." He tempered these stiff words with a reminder to Republicans that they "have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve, while at the same time recognizing that realism should never be confused with capitulation." 

McConnell and Obama may find some common ground when they meet at the White House November 18th. Obama may agree to a temporary extension of high-earner tax cuts, and McConnell could build support for an upcoming House bill that would limit its current $1.4 billion operations budget. House minority leader and Speaker-apparent John Boehner (R-Ohio), has agreed to seek a 72-hour reading period for all bills, which will give the diminished Democratic caucus more time to consider new legislation.

Each of these measures will, if passed, play to the middle of taxpayers' concerns with profligate government spending on one end and, on the other, recession-era federal liquidity seen by many as vital to keeping the U.S. economy on track to recovery.


For European observers of the midterms, it is vital to accept that American politics is fundamentally different from politics on the Continent. The U.S. and Europe are not aligned on one continuous political spectrum. Their histories in classical liberalism, socialism and other political thought lines are connected but different. Observers frequently use the one-spectrum image to reduce transatlantic comparison to bite-sized and ultimately meaningless dimensions. Europe has its own political spectrum, and that of the U.S. is wholly separate; together the two form a kind of fuzzy X shape in which certain fundamental values and ideas make up the center in similar ways--or don't. All other branches trace their roots to distinct roots of the transatlantic political tree. 

Criticizing U.S. politics is easy (and easy to oversimplify) from a European perch, especially given certain night-and-day differences, such as how much money is involved in American campaigning. The liberal commentariat unleashed withering rebukes on the mostly Conservative Supreme Court for having opened up the floodgates of deregulated campaign finance in 2009. But little suggests that more cash in the game means more money for conservatives, any more than for the Democrats as well. 

"Perhaps the most important lesson from Election Day was that money simply can't overcome demographics. Republicans who spent big tended to run in states where the Democratic Party dominates," writes the Washington Post.

Americans are sometimes chided as not voting in a way that considers all those under American governing influence, which is to say all those affected -- worldwide -- by all (or any one) U.S. policy. Ridiculous notions that "Europeans should get to vote in U.S. elections too" surface in op-eds like this one from European Voice:

"If European observers ever wondered if American elections matter, this mid-term election is likely to demonstrate how important shifts in political power can be, especially for Europeans and others who did not get a vote."
This kind of pontificating, with its apparent disregard for national sovereignty and will of the people, is exactly what alienates Americans from Europeans politically, and vice-versa. It does little to advance the understanding that would inform U.S. voters, who would lean on representatives, who would then legislate in the common interest of transatlantic citizens everywhere.

Let's be more specific, and take the foreign policy example of Iran. Fears over a U.S. military response to Iran's nuclear progress are largely overblown, contrary to what European Voice has claimed, because the two wars America is currently fighting leave next to zero political capital to take on a third fight. Likewise, the U.S. resistance to climate change legislation, a top-priority issue for Europeans, sits on the back-burner of Congressional legislation when global economic recovery, huge joblessness, and Iraq and Afghanistan are still left on its political plate--and all that, in an election year. 


Many Republicans dug in their heels in 2008-2010 because they felt they had to. Greatly outnumbered in Congress, with furious voters at home, the GOP had to fight tooth-and-nail to preserve its influence. Some fear more entrenched partisan skirmishing through 2012; I wonder if a chamber held by each party may actually have the psychological effect of easing the pressure on each side not to reflexively dismiss the other's concerns. In an interview in the Washington Post, Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler (D-North Carolina) cited Bill Clinton's urge to grab at small-scale progress in the face of steep odds. 

"If you can't get a dollar but you can get a dime, take a dime every time," Schuler quoted the former President.

With Democrats holding both the Senate and the White House, Republican triumphalism--or the liberal doom-and-gloom that has inversely mirrored it--is far from a practical, moderate reading of this week's events. If the GOP leads the pack today, there's no guarantee they won't stumble in future clutch moments. We saw as much in the mediocre transatlantic dealings of a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and White House since 2008.

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