GOP Wants to Control Congress. It Hasn’t Made Its Case
Policy + Politics

GOP Wants to Control Congress. It Hasn’t Made Its Case

In the final weeks of the midterm campaign, Republicans are trying to ride to victory the crest of public concern over the Obama administration’s response to ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the spread of Ebola. Their goal is to command majorities in the Senate and House for the first time in nearly a decade.

Rather than making the case for why voters should entrust the entire Congress to the GOP after years of gridlock with President Obama, candidates have largely focused on raising doubts in voters’ minds about how safe the country is under Democrats.

Related: How the U.S. Allowed ISIS to Form a Terrorist Army

Republicans, of course, have spent much of the past six years pummeling Obama and Senate Democratic leaders for political “sins.” Those include foisting the Affordable Care Act on an unreceptive public, using the IRS as a political tool against conservatives, wielding executive orders and recess appointments to circumvent Congress, and pursuing a feckless foreign policy and military strategy in the Middle East that gave rise to ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.   

“Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president's persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a potential GOP presidential candidate, wrote in a document.

The Republicans seem on the cusp of victory, with much better than a 50-50 chance of recapturing control of the Senate and expanding their majority in the House. If they succeed in picking up six or more Senate seats, the country will suddenly be treated once more to the spectacle of a truly divided government – with one party controlling Congress and the other in charge of the White House.

The last grand experiment with divided government dates back to the Clinton era, when a liberal Democratic president clashed with a conservative GOP Congress and produced – among other things – a balanced budget, major welfare reform and an historic impeachment trial. 

Related: GOP Campaign Tactic: Fear-Mongering Over Ebola and ISIS 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Republican lawmakers are eager to restore that political balance between the executive and legislative branch and curtail Obama’s “go-it-alone” practices on the environment, immigration and other sensitive issues.

Just how the public will take to divided government remains to be seen after years of conflict between the White House and a GOP heavily influenced by the Tea Party.

“Some Americans prefer divided government, especially the partisans on the GOP side who are ready to vote GOP and stop President Obama,” said John Zogby, a veteran pollster. “As the polls show in the horse races, this is still not enough to create a wave. Right now, about half of undecided likely voters still do not know” who they’re voting for, added Zogby. “That is a lot for this point.”

Americans for the past four years have experienced a fractured government, with the Democrats in charge of the Senate and the Republicans honchoing the House. The result has been a dysfunctional Congress with a record low level of substantial legislation, a near-historic default on U.S. borrowing and a 16-day government shutdown last fall.

Related: Democrats See a Glimmer of Hope in New Senate Polls  

Rather than attempt to explain why voters should entrust Congress to the GOP, Republican candidates have focused on raising doubts in voters’ minds about how safe we are under Democrats. “Has the case [for divided government] been made effectively? I don't believe so because we would then be seeing GOP candidates at 50 percent or higher,” Zogby said. “We have a way to go.

The GOP’s message, said a recent New York Times analysis, is decidedly grim: “President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protections from harm.”

David Nather, writing in Politico, said the tension between the Republicans’ “desire to bring Obama to his knees” and a desire to create clear contrasts between the parties before the 2016 presidential campaign has largely dictated GOP pronouncements on the campaign trail.

McConnell, who can barely disguise his contempt for Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have vowed to treat must-pass spending bills like a Christmas tree, load them up with pro-GOP amendments and then dare the president to veto them – and shut down the government.

Related: Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election

A handful of more thoughtful Republicans, to be sure, have discussed the growing likelihood of divided government in positive – and occasionally bipartisan – tones. While outlining a Senate Republican jobs plan earlier this year, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said a Republican majority would “change the dynamic in this town by giving the president an incentive to deal with us” on tax reform, regulatory relief and trade.

What’s more, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus delivered a speech entitled “Principles for American Renewal” on October 2 emphasizing the party’s 11 tenets. Those include preservation of constitutional principles, growing the economy, passing a balanced budget amendment, overhauling Obamacare and “keeping America safe and strong” through a beefed-up defense.

Preibus, in his speech, said he wanted “to cut through the noise and talk about what’s driving the Republican Party. People know what we’re against. I want to talk about the things we’re for.”

Beyond that, there is little sign Republicans are trying to make the case for true divided government. “With the possible exception of Priebus, the party has mainly stuck to the same anti-Obama message that failed in 2012,” said Dan Holler at Heritage Action for America, a conservative political action group. “A coherent, conservative reform agenda would go a long way toward attracting voters in November and strengthening the party long term.”

Political scientist Ross Baker said, “Republicans would be hard pressed to make a case for productivity. Clearly they don’t want anything that has the presidential DNA to pass.” He added, “There was a time in which [Democratic and Republican presidents] Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower could cooperate [with congressional opponents] on a lot of things, but that was 60 years ago. It’s very different now, [with] an intensified adversarial system in which there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to cooperate.”

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato agrees. “I have seen no sustained argument for a positive program this fall, and that’s by design,” he said. “GOP leaders decided a midterm wasn’t a good time to propose a list of actionable items, since Obama would be likely to veto anything they could pass. Republicans have focused on attacking Obamacare and many other Obama actions and initiatives, domestic and foreign.”

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