Having won a majority in the Senate and retained control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans will be obliged to move from being the party of “No” to the agent of legislative initiatives in Washington. Rather than being known for what they are against – from Obamacare to immigration reform and infrastructure spending – they will need to find common ground with the Administration on issues such as the budget, tax reform, possibly the long-delayed Keystone pipeline, and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to prove that they have the capacity to govern.
The prospects for compromise are not encouraging. The line dividing the parties is wider than ever. The President’s capacity for constructive engagement is not likely to improve during the final quarter of his eight year term.
The Republicans did manage to achieve what Mitt Romney failed to do in 2012 – making the election a referendum on the President’s record even though his name was not on the ballot. The Republicans now have a clear majority of 52 in the Senate and may pick up two more in the run-off elections scheduled for December. They also gained seats in the House, attaining a plurality they have not had since the Second World War. Equally significant were the breakthroughs in gubernatorial victories in true blue Democratic states like Maryland and Massachusetts.
Expectations about Mr. Obama’s presidency were excessively high when he began in 2009, and the challenges he faced were on par with those that confronted Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression. But elegant rhetoric proved insufficient, and competence became a real question mark. The President is now left to salvage what little legacy he can in what will truly be a lame duck phase of his presidency.
Republicans now clearly have the numbers to rule. Less certain is whether they are cohesive enough to make use of their newfound control of both Houses. Aspirants for higher office will certainly put personal priorities ahead of party loyalty as the 2016 presidential campaign begins in earnest.
Relations with key allies like Canada have been running on idle at best and that will not change. While many Republicans can be expected to push for approval of the long delayed Keystone XL pipeline, it is not likely that they can muster a 2/3 majority to override a veto from the President who has little to lose. His priority may well become fundraising – at which he excels – only this time it will be for his presidential library and from those who mostly already oppose the pipeline.
It is conceivable that Republicans may rally to support the TPP agreement if the result from negotiations is uncontestably in America’s favor. The first hint will be any move to obtain Fast Track negotiating authority from Congress. But a disillusioned Democratic rump in the Senate and the House may not see more open trade as a winner for their highly protectionist base.
The big winners are clearly Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey who, as chair of the National Governors Association, campaigned vigorously to deliver stellar results for Republican candidates. Christie re-emerges as an early favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. This was not a victory for the Tea Party but for Republican moderates who understand better what it takes to govern.
Apart from the President, the big loser on the Democratic side was former Senate majority Leader Harry Reid, who was targeted in the campaign almost as fiercely by the Republicans as Mr. Obama.
The election results underscore that Americans are neither confident nor optimistic these days about the way their country is faring at home and abroad. The sheer competence of the Administration was cast into doubt by the botched rollout of Obamacare, and scandals plaguing the Internal Revenue Service, the Veterans Administration and even the Secret Service. America’s global leadership is a source of neither pride nor achievement. It is reactive and piecemeal instead of strategic.
The best prospect of all for Americans and the rest of the world would be some degree of consensus between the Congressional leaders and the Administration that will make the fledgling signs of economic recovery more certain and more consistent. That would be a triumph of hope over experience.
Because the political mood of America remains fractious and undisciplined, the real priority for Canada will be focus sharply and directly on Congress, cultivating the new Senate leadership and the putative candidates for the president from both parties to safeguard and advance our interests. Canada’s issues are seldom a priority these days in Washington. At a time when the U.S. is increasingly turning inward and with narrow self-interest in ascendancy, eternal vigilance must be the watchword.