What Happens Next

It’s simple human nature to wonder what happens next, given what’s happening now, which is why there is science fiction, speculative fiction for an anxious public – but the flying saucers from the tacky black-and-white low-budget fifties movies never showed up. There was no day the earth stood still and a tall elegant fellow from outer space, with a vaguely British accent, forced the human race to choose between giving up war or, the alternative, having our planet wiped out, because we were dangerous to everyone else out there in the universe. Nope – we were on our own – and for all the nuclear testing back then there was no fifty-foot woman and not one Godzilla showed up either. These were cautionary tales – scare stories. Sometimes it was giant spiders or giant ants. If we kept going the way we were going such things could happen. You never know, but 1984 came, and went, and we weren’t in that George Orwell novel, except in minor ways. Aldous Huxley posited that Brave New World, a nightmare too, but we still find ourselves in the same muddled old world that was here yesterday and will be here tomorrow. Ray Bradbury projected a world where no one reads anything anymore, where scary police squads go around burning books, but people still read. The paper in books might burn at Fahrenheit 451, but your Kindle just melts, and the books themselves are actually on a cloud-server somewhere. People still read them. Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury were brilliant writers, and they got us thinking about what we were doing, as we should, but no one knows what happens next. Don’t expect flying saucers, and waiting for Godzilla is as bitterly futile as waiting for Godot. Oh, and those flying cars? There won’t be one of those in your garage. Don’t expect the good stuff either.

Don’t expect the good stuff in politics either. The latest Washington Post poll confirms that even if there’s a still a week left before the midterm election, and even if there are more than a few close races that could fall to the Democrats, this is going to be a good election for the Republicans. The math is clear. Republicans are going to take over the Senate, giving them unified control of Congress. This is what Republicans have been working on for years and have never quite pulled off given the occasional odd and clueless Tea Party candidate they had to run, when a sensible and competent mainstream Republican senator, like Richard Lugar, was tossed out on his ear by their own purist insurgents. Now they’ve solved that problem, or contained it. This is their year.

What happens next? The man who will lead this new Republican Senate, unless he is somehow upset in his election, is telling his folks that there will be no flying car:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) downplayed the prospects of repealing Obamacare if Republicans win control of the Senate next week… Appearing Tuesday on Fox News, he was asked by host Neil Cavuto if he’d push for “defunding and getting rid of the Affordable Care Act” as majority leader.

“Well, it’s the top of my list, but remember who’s in the White House for two more years. Obviously, he’s not going to sign a full repeal,” McConnell said. “It would take 60 votes in the Senate. Nobody thinks we’re going to have 60 Republicans. And it would take a president – presidential signature. No one thinks we’re going to get that.”

But McConnell said he intends to force Democrats to take tough votes on scrapping unpopular pieces of Obamacare, such as the medical device tax and the individual mandate.

Even that might not work. There is no brave new world here, and Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo is impressed that Republicans abandoned Obamacare repeal and got away with it:

With the law benefiting many voters in their states, Republican candidates in key Senate races are tacitly supporting core Obamacare provisions, most notably the Medicaid expansion.

But shhh, don’t call it Obamacare. “Obamacare” remains a dirty word in Republican politics, and so these candidates are rhetorically toeing the party line for repeal. Scratch beneath the surface and they’re making a logically strained implication that they can eliminate Obamacare without taking away its benefits.

One revealing example is North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis. During the primary, the state house speaker boasted in a TV ad that he “stopped Obama’s Medicaid expansion cold.” But last week he flipped his position and argued that North Carolina is “trending in a direction where we should consider potential expansion.” He told Time Warner Cable News, “I would encourage the state legislature and the governor to consider it.”

He’s now in favor of Medicaid expansion, a good thing, but not Obamacare, a bad thing, which Kapur finds puzzling:

Medicaid expansion isn’t a small piece of Obamacare, it accounts for about half of the law’s newly insured non-elderly adults: 8.7 million more Americans have enrolled under Medicaid or the Children’s Health Care Program since the expansion last year, compared to 7.3 million on the Obamacare exchanges, according to administration figure.

This is Obamacare, and that’s the problem:

Iowa’s Joni Ernst, who holds a narrow lead in the race, illustrates the dilemma for Republican Senate candidates caught between a conservative base that despises Obamacare and their constituents who are benefiting from the Medicaid expansion – an estimated 100,000 Iowans. Ernst has repeatedly called for repealing Obamacare, but she has also said Congress must “protect those that are on Medicaid now.”

She wants it both ways, but that’s not possible:

If Obamacare is repealed, Medicaid would lose its authority to spend federal dollars to insure those additional Iowans, and they’d be thrown off their coverage. Ernst’s campaign hasn’t responded to three queries by TPM since late August on how she would maintain existing Medicaid coverage if Obamacare is repealed.

It’s the same for Mitch:

The dilemma has vexed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, where the state-based Obamacare portal, Kynect, has signed up some 520,000 residents under Medicaid expansion and the subsidized market exchanges. What’s the Republican leader to do? Throw them off? That’s too risky, especially when he’s facing an unexpectedly strong reelection challenge from a Democrat who promises to protect that coverage.

McConnell has sought to distinguish Kynect from Obamacare, arguing that Kentucky should be allowed to keep Kynect if Obamacare is repealed, and saying Kynect is merely a “website” that he’s “fine” with continuing. His position on the health care law was pilloried as “bizarre” by the Louisville Courier-Journal and an “outlandish deception” by the Lexington Herald-Leader – the state’s two largest papers.

Asked what Obamacare repeal would mean for the newly covered Kentuckians, a McConnell Senate aide gave TPM a statement from the senator calling for “repeal and replace” of Obamacare “with commonsense patient-centered reforms that preserve greater choice for my constituents while also lowering costs.” It’s unclear where that would leave the Kentuckians who are insured because of Obamacare subsidies and Medicaid expansion.

Kapur goes on, Senate race by Senate race, to show every Republican saying end Obamacare and expand Medicaid, obviously using the authority under Obamacare, which they will repeal, to spend federal dollars to insure those additional folks. The Kapur item is long, and repetitive, and surreal. These folks will be in charge. What happens next? No one knows, and the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman sees a dystopian nightmare:

There are multiple reasons for this, but they all have their roots in the fundamental dilemma that has plagued the GOP throughout Barack Obama’s presidency: the contradictory demands of appealing to a broad electorate and appeasing an eternally angry and suspicious base.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball explains how we are seeing that already:

In Kansas recently Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who’s in a tough race for reelection, made a statement that left me puzzled. “A vote for me is a vote to change the Senate back to a Republican majority, and we’ll get things done,” he said. “And it means a stop to the Obama agenda.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Which is it – ending the status quo of Washington gridlock? Or ratcheting up the gridlock by obstructing President Obama? You can’t “get things done” in Washington without the president’s signature, and no matter what happens in this year’s elections, he’s not going anywhere for another two years.

Yet these two seemingly contradictory messages are at the heart of Republican Senate campaigns across the country. I’ve heard them from candidate after candidate, and the paradox behind them gets to the question political watchers are increasingly pondering: If, as seems likely, Republicans take the Senate, what then? Will the GOP see its takeover as a mandate for ever more extreme partisanship? Or will the party suddenly turn conciliatory, ushering in a new age of progress?

She can image which it will be:

One possibility is that nothing will really change. After all, we have divided government now, and we will still have divided government if Republicans go from 45 senators to 51. Obama will still be in the White House, and the House of Representatives will still belong to the GOP. With the Senate requiring a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation, Republicans have effectively had a veto in the upper house since Scott Brown was elected in 2010. Democratic priorities like gun control or a minimum-wage hike wouldn’t be any deader in a Republican-controlled Congress than they already are. The status quo is often a good bet in Washington, and it may well be that it simply continues.

That’s a good bet:

Given McConnell’s track record of keeping Republicans staunchly unified against virtually anything Obama proposes, many observers, particularly liberal pundits, believe McConnell would quickly devote the Senate to passing a raft of partisan legislation that Obama would never allow to become law: repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, approving the entitlement-slashing House budget plan authored by Representative Paul Ryan, restricting the Environmental Protection Agency, and so on. The result would be a more partisan, toxic, and stalemated Washington than ever before.

There’s evidence to support this view. In an interview with Politico in August, McConnell said he planned to “challenge” Obama by passing spending bills that included “a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy.” That is, Republicans would attach their policy priorities – McConnell specifically mentioned reining in the EPA – to the legislation that funds the government, forcing Obama either to approve their pet projects or shut down the government.

They’ve done that before and they can do it again, although there’s another way to look at this:

Those who see McConnell only as an obstructionist are overlooking another significant part of his profile: his record as a dealmaker. As the general election nears, McConnell has sought to emphasize this as well. “There have been three major bipartisan agreements during the Obama years between Republicans and Democrats,” he said in last week’s Kentucky Senate debate with his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. “The vice president and I have negotiated every one of them.” McConnell was referring to the December 2010 deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, the last-minute 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling, and last year’s fiscal-cliff deal. This is the side of McConnell that drives conservatives crazy, putting him in the unique position of being ardently reviled by left and right alike. But as Alec MacGillis’ excellent new eBook on McConnell makes clear, the Kentucky senator’s top priority has always been not ideology but his own political advancement and survival. He made those deals because, much as his base hated to see him working with Democrats, the alternative would have been even worse for the GOP – and him – politically.

Maybe that’s so, and then there’s this:

When and if they take control of the Senate, Republicans will have a big incentive not to simply create more gridlock: It would make them look terrible, worsening their image as the “party of no” and making it harder for their presidential nominee to win in 2016.

Waldman isn’t so sure about that:

There will be tremendous built-up pressure from conservatives that Sen. Mitch McConnell (assuming he wins his own race and becomes majority leader) will have to satisfy. That means votes on things such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, building border fences, slashing environmental regulations and cutting corporate taxes, most or all of which will be unpopular and inevitably filibustered by Senate Democrats.

At that point, McConnell would have a way to create confrontations not with Harry Reid but with President Obama. In November 2013, Reid and Democrats changed Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on most presidential appointments. Though it was called “the nuclear option,” the true nuclear option would apply to legislation, which under current rules the minority is still free to filibuster (as the Republicans do). Would McConnell go fully nuclear and get rid of that, too, so the GOP Congress could send bills to the president’s desk?

That would be dumb:

There wouldn’t be much point, since Obama would just veto the bills. And McConnell surely knows that his time as majority leader would come with a two-year expiration date, since in 2016 there will be only 10 Democrat-held seats up for election, while Republicans will be defending 24 seats, many in Democratic states, and they will be doing it in a presidential election year, when the electorate that comes to the polls is far more friendly to Democrats. McConnell won’t be too eager to hand a Senate with no filibusters back to Reid in 2016.

Ed Kilgore is also not hopeful:

Ball draws on her “listen to both sides” journalism training and actually ends the piece actively entertaining the idea that a post-midterm-victory GOP is going to behave itself to give its presidential candidate an easier path, and might find common ground with Barack Obama, the poor sap who cannot say no to a “bipartisan” deal (except when he does).

Well, miracles are always possible. And there is the occasional 1996-97 welfare-reform-balanced-budget-agreement precedent for a divided government coming together to do things that happen to be in the (perceived, at least) self-interest of people who hate each other.

But putting aside Obama’s attitude, the idea of congressional Republicans “moderating” themselves to help their presidential candidate has a pretty recent counter-example: the very last cycle, when poor old Mitt had to meet ideological litmus test after litmus test while trying to convince swing voters he really wanted to throw his crazy cousins in Congress into the nearest mental health facility. And you know what? Even if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell want to play it that way, does anyone think they can snap their finger and convince their conferences to spend the next two years burnishing Barack Obama’s legacy?

That’s the future. Don’t expect good stuff, flying cars, or bad stuff, Godzilla or that mean fifty-foot woman. Expect two years of nothing much at all, which seems to be what Americans will vote for, which Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog finds outrageous:

Thanks to Republicans, Congress accomplished nothing in the past two years. Americans hate Congress for that, and congressional Republicans have staggeringly low approval ratings as a result. A year ago, Republicans shut down the government, and Americans really hated that.

And guess what? None of that mattered to Republicans. They’re poised to have a great election.

The shutdown was in October 2013, and Americans forgot all about it by Thanksgiving, if not sooner. Everyone who thought it was going to affect this year’s midterms was an idiot. Democrats never hammer away at Republicans the way Republicans hammer away at Democrats, and the mainstream press routinely blames both sides, so Republicans were never going to be held accountable for the shutdown. And most voters blame the president and his party for everything that’s wrong with government, especially when the president is a Democrat and the right-wing media sets the tone of most debates, so voters aren’t blaming Republicans for the do-nothing nature of the Congress, either.

He sees a horror movie coming:

Why should Republicans be worried if nothing is accomplished in the next two years? Hell, why should they even try to avoid another shutdown? They’ve proved that they suffer no long-term consequences for this sort of behavior. In the next two years, all they have to do is continue to let everything drift. Voters will stay angry, and Republicans will blame Obama – with a little blame on the side for Hillary in foreign policy matters. Where’s the peril? There is none – Republicans are the Teflon party, at least as long as Democrats have the presidency.

Maybe we do live in some sort of awful Brave New World now, even if it’s not Huxley’s. In 2011, Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, the professor of sociology and political science, released The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism – written with Vanessa Williamson – that suggested that new world. Salon’s Elias Isquith interviewed her about how things stand now and heard things like this:

It’ll be interesting to see what happens after Republicans take the Senate, as I expect that they will do, by two or three or four votes. There are some fairly extreme candidates who have been successful in the Republican primaries this time around who are going to get elected to the Senate and to the House (on top of some very extreme ones who made it even in the last cycle). So I think we’re going to see an intensified war inside the Republican Party between the business-oriented wing and those who are beholden either to popular Tea Party forces or to ideological funders.

This will be a nightmare for the Republicans:

We know that John Boehner, and presumably Mitch McConnell, are going to be trying to engineer some compromises, particularly on budget issues, and they’ve already shown some ability to bring enough people along to avoid shutdowns and fiscal cliffs. But what are they going to do with, for example, the fact that their party has promised repeal of Obamacare?

That is a completely disingenuous promise. It is certainly something that these leaders know can’t happen. But there’s going to be a lot of pressure, not just to hold the symbolic vote that Obama would then veto if it made it to his desk – and I’m not sure it would – but to start going after major subsidies in the law that benefit millions of voters and benefit businesses that are very uneasy about that Tea Party strand of Republicanism.

I don’t know what’s going to happen there – and of course that’s not even to get to the immigration issue. There are divisions within Tea Party forces on that one, but Republicans have fought an election on a maximalist, deport-them-all platform that just is not going to fly in 2016. It’s already been clear in the last two years that John Boehner cannot control his own caucus. And in the Senate, nobody can really control anyone. So I’m not quite sure how that’s going to play out.

No one is sure, but the conflict has been there all along:

The sense that our country’s being taken away from us, that a lot of government spending is benefiting undocumented immigrants – illegals, in their view – and that we must defend the country against this influx, that’s very passionate for grass-roots Tea Partyers.

But when we talk about elite forces that have labeled themselves Tea Party supporters and are trying to kind of whip up the fears below and use those fears along with their money and their ideological pressures on the Republican officeholders, they’re divided about immigration reform. You can look at the Jim DeMint crowd, and the Heritage Action Foundation, and see they staked out a maximalist, nativist position that is really the intellectual justification for the popular passions I described before.

But the Koch brothers network, instantiated most clearly at this point in Americans for Prosperity, they don’t care what kind of people they exploit. And they’re actually in favor of a version of immigration reform that might even include a kind of infinitely winding very-delayed route to some legalization. Their guy is Paul Ryan (Paul Ryan always follows the Koch brothers’ line on everything) and he’s made favorable noises.

There you have it. It really is simple human nature to wonder what happens next, given what’s happening now, and this has been happening for years now. In the fifties there were all those atmospheric nuclear tests, testing the bombs that would keep us safe and free and keep America being America, which spewed radiation all over the place, which might have produced a Godzilla. It seems we finally got our Godzilla. Watch it destroy civilization.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to What Happens Next

  1. Rick says:

    Atlantic’s Molly Ball thinks not much, if anything, will change:

    “With the Senate requiring a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation, Republicans have effectively had a veto in the upper house since Scott Brown was elected in 2010. Democratic priorities like gun control or a minimum-wage hike wouldn’t be any deader in a Republican-controlled Congress than they already are.”

    True, but there would be a slight difference now, with both houses in Republican hands, and that comes in them being slightly closer to the finish line.

    In the days of the GOP just holding the House, they could pass bill after bill that was going nowhere — I actually lost count of the bills to repeal Obamacare, but it hardly matters, since a hundred of them not getting past the Senate are just as dead as one. But in this new situation, Obama would now be in a position to negotiate with Republicans as to which ones get signed into law.

    But would both sides really compromise on passing legislation? I’m not sure which Republican bill Obama would not veto in exchange for whatever bill he wants them to pass, but I’m pretty sure both sides might now play — and I’m pretty sure I still won’t be all that happy about it.

    Yes, this is something Obama, like Mitch McConnell, might actually want to do, even if it pisses off some of his base, simply because if he refuses to compromise, it will not only assure his place in history as a “Do-Nothing President” but would also hurt his party’s chances in 2016.

    And although you might ask, “Oh, really? Well, how come Congress being a ‘Do-Nothing Congress’ — even with all those shutdowns and threats to destroy the country’s credit ratings — never seemed to hurt the Republicans at the polls?”, the answer is simply that, being Republicans, they always seem to get away with stuff that Democrats don’t.

    And why is that?

    Look at what goes on under Obama: If any tiny thing bad happens in the world, Americans hold him responsible, probably because Republicans never fail to hammer him for it, but also because the American people go along with them — probably because they’re a “cheap date” when it comes to being led around by the nose, or they too easily fall for that “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” talk — or maybe, just maybe, because too many of them don’t think America should even have a black president, although they can always cite some reason other than race to justify their low opinion of the man. After all, who really knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?

    But mostly, it’s because, although Republicans may be no good at governing, they’ve gotten very good at “Hail Mary” politics — as if to say Why not try to destroy the opposition? After all, being out of power, we’ve got nothing else to do right now. And besides, as everybody always says, politics ain’t beanbag.

    Think about it: Back before Obama was president, did the Democrats get their elected officials to go on the Sunday shows to blame Bush for everything from rainy weekends to mosquito bites, just because they could get away with it? Hell, we barely held him responsible for most of the big things, like 9/11 preparedness, that stupid Iraq War and the collapse of the economy.

    I know I’ve said this before, but it’s still the truth — that in American politics, wherever you see smoke, look behind it hard enough and you’ll be sure to find some Republican blowing it.

    Rick

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