Midterm Roundup: What’s at stake in Tuesday’s Senate elections


See what’s at stake below the jump.

By John Irwin

It’s tough not to feel a bit apathetic about these Senate elections.

Continued gridlock is nearly guaranteed over the next two years, no matter which party ends up in control. After all, the final two years of any president’s second term are usually devoid of major legislative achievements, typically overshadowed by the race to replace him and foreign affairs. Considering the historical ineptitude of Congress to pass anything productive since Republicans took over the House in 2010, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

It certainly doesn’t help that most candidates of either party aren’t running on any substantive ideas beyond bashing the unpopular President Barack Obama or distancing themselves from him.

For The Dish‘s Andrew Sullivan, though, the populace’s general apathy regarding Tuesday’s elections goes beyond dissatisfaction with the here and now. Rather, it reflects a (somewhat misplaced) lack of hope in the future:

The future as yet seems to contain no new or rallying figure to chart a different course. Ever-greater gridlock seems the likeliest result of the mid-terms; polarization continues to deepen geographically and on-line; the Democrats have only an exhausted, conventional dynasty to offer in 2016 (Hillary Clinton); and the Republicans either have dangerous demagogues, like (Chris) Christie or (Ted) Cruz, or lightweights, like (Scott) Walker or (Marco) Rubio or (Rand) Paul, or, even another fricking Bush.

So I see this election as more of a primal moan than anything else. Its core meaning is both hard to pin down and yet all around us. Maybe venting will make the atmosphere a little less gloomy. That’s one function of elections, after all. But after that, the harder but more vital task of deciding how to address that gloom with policy and direction is up for grabs. And it is not too late for Obama to lead the way, to construct a new narrative that is as honest and as realist as it is, beneath it all, optimistic. It’s a hard task – but since his likeliest successors are failing to do so, he has as good a shot as any. In these circumstances, treating the last two years of a presidency as irrelevant could not be more wrong. They could, with the right policies and the right message, be the most relevant of them all.

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist, says this election is the first since 1998 that offers little in the way of legislative importance.

It’s still incredibly important, he says, because Obama’s ability to fill vacant administration and judge positions might come down to who controls the Senate:

The race to control the Senate is not about legislation, because the pivotal negotiations on any legislation involve Obama and the House. Appointments are a different story, because the House has no power over appointments. The Senate has power over appointments. And this is the power that lies on the razor’s edge.

The Constitution gives the Senate, but not the House, power to approve the president’s appointments to federal judgeships and high-level executive branch jobs. Historically, the Senate operated under an informal understanding of how this power would be used. The president had a basic right to appoint judges and nominees who broadly reflected his ideology, but the Senate could veto a candidate who they deemed especially extreme, scandal-ridden, or incompetent.

This is where things stand right now: Obama can fill the judiciary and staff his administration because he has a majority of votes in the Senate. But if Republicans win the Senate, then they can block his appointments… The parties have no incentive to cooperate on judicial nominations — Republicans would be better off leaving a seat empty than allowing it to be filled with an even moderately liberal judge. They say they want to force Obama to appoint “more acceptable” judges — “Obama would have to present nominees that are much much more acceptable to Republicans, or they won’t even schedule hearings,” explains Randy Barnett, a powerful Republican legal strategist — but the only kind of judge they have any reason to accept is one likely to side with conservatives more often than liberals. And Obama has no incentive to appoint a judge like that.

Conservative columnist George Will says Tuesday’s elections are about one thing: Whether Obama’s presidency can effectively survive.

We govern through parties and this autumn President Obama’s party has repudiated his. Tuesday will supply evidence of not only how little pulse Obama’s presidency still has, but how much damage he has done to his party. Before he led it to its 2010 debacle, it controlled 62 state legislative chambers to the Republicans’ 36. Entering Tuesday, Republicans led Democrats, 59-39. (Subtract two chambers because Nebraska’s Legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan.) Can Democrats stop the hemorrhaging?

As the Boston Herald reports, many in the Obama White House hold a similar view:

For President Barack Obama, the stark reality of the looming midterm elections is that the best outcome for his party gets him nothing but two more years of the status quo.

Two more years of a divided Congress. Two more years battling a Republican-led House that sees little overlap with the president’s priorities. And two more years that are likely to pass without the kind of legacy-building legislation that has eluded the president throughout his second term.

And yet to White House aides, it sure beats the alternative — a Republican takeover of the Senate.

“Who sets the agenda in the Senate matters in a big way,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser. If Republicans take the Senate, Pfeiffer predicted a “doubling down on the (Texas Republican Sen.) Ted Cruz, shutdown, hostage-taking” approach to government.”

What sort of impact a Republican Senate would have on the president’s ability to legislate in his final two years is mostly irrelevant, though. Bluntly, Congress has been awful since 2011. Partisan politics, driven by numerous factors on all sides but thanks most of all to an increasingly far-right GOP, has slowed American government to a standstill.

All a Republican Senate would likely do differently than the current Democratic Senate, legislatively, is decide which bills get the chance to be voted down on the Senate floor. Sixty votes are required to pass almost anything in the Senate, and those 60 votes were nearly impossible for Obama to find in his first two years when his party held 59 seats. How would a GOP Senate find 60 votes of their own?

So, Obama’s legislative legacy will not be impacted by these midterms. The legislative aspect of his presidency died with the Tea Party wave of 2010, and it’s not coming back.

And any hope of comprehensive immigration, student loan, education, etc., reforms are virtually nonexistent until at least 2017.

As Chait points out, though, this election is incredibly important for the health of the American judicial system and the federal bureaucracy.

It’s not sexy stuff, but the courts are incredibly important to how laws are interpreted and enforced in this country. Not letting the president appoint the typical left-of-center nominee he’s been able to get onto the bench over the next two years would halt the court system’s first notable lurch to the left in more than 30 years.

Depending on your view of government, that can be either a good or a bad thing. But it’s important, either way. These nominees can, and do, sit on the court for a lifetime.

So, get out and vote. You’re doing an important job, and the outcome of Tuesday’s elections will be felt by you and your fellow Americans for decades to come.

Check back to Insider tomorrow morning before voting to see what’s at stake in the race for Michigan governor.

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