US midterm elections: After this result, US politics may get even uglier

Analysis

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The Independent US

As electoral thumpings go, they don’t come more painful than the one just handed out to Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular.

In these most expensive midterms ever (total cost $4bn or more), the usual Democratic edge in getting out the vote counted for nothing. What mattered was most was the unpopularity of the President – and the Republicans, in pool-hall parlance, ran the table.

After run-offs and late counts, they may end up with a net nine Senate seats while lifting their House majority to a level unseen since Harry Truman’s time. They cleaned up too in governors’ races, winning in normally Democratic states like Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. Every predicted upset failed to materialise.

The only consolation for the Democrats is that in US politics nothing is set in stone. The configuration of these midterms could not have been less favourable for the party, forced to defend seats in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, where Obama’s very name is toxic. Whatever else, things can surely get no worse.

In 2016, roles will be reversed. Republicans currently hold two-thirds of the 34 Senate seats at stake, many of them in states traditionally Democratic. Moreover, midterm turnouts are always low (40 per cent or so), benefiting Republicans who are more motivated to vote, and 2016 will be a presidential year, when turnout is usually around 60 per cent.

 

Midterms invariably punish the party that holds the White House. In 2006, the equivalent point in George W Bush’s second term, the Democrats won everything in sight and recaptured both House and Senate. What goes around, comes around.

So what now? There are two scenarios for Mr Obama’s last two years in office. The optimistic version reads thus: now that Republicans hold both Houses, they must do more than just say no. They will be better served by working with Obama, and this will be made easier by the enlarged majority in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner, a dealmaker by nature, will be mathematically less beholden to a radical, obstreperous Tea Party faction. If not, the theory goes, they will in their turn be sent packing by voters fed up with Washington and all of its works – as those in charge of (and therefore responsible for the functioning of) Congress, an institution whose popularity among ordinary Americans languishes somewhere between colonoscopies and Communism.

There are obvious areas of co-operation: overdue reform of the creaking US tax code, spending on sorely needed infrastructure and, of course, immigration reform, whose absence could hit Republicans hard in 2016. There will be plenty of fine words to this effect in coming days. Mitch McConnell, the scowling and waspish Kentucky senator who will take over as Majority Leader, is even evoking the name of a legendary Democratic predecessor, the modest and much-beloved Mike Mansfield, who led the Senate for a record 16 years from 1961 to 1977.

Now for the pessimistic version. Heartened by their success, especially gubernatorial victories in presidential swing states like Florida and Ohio, Republicans will calculate that more of the same wrecking tactics will bring them the White House too in 2016. Any improvement will require a personal thaw between Mr McConnell and his predecessor, Harry Reid of Nevada. The frostiness between them has been one contributor to the impasses of recent times. The Democrats will also still have the Senate filibuster to block legislation they don’t like. Mr Obama, meanwhile, must overcome his scorn for Congress and get down and dirty as a dealmaker. Alas, Gresham’s Law tends to prevail in Washington. The bad drives out the good, and the blame game dominates. US politics may get even uglier than ever.

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