Around the Halls: Would Republican Control of the House be Better for the Obama Administration?

The health care bill’s enactment was a historic accomplishment for President Obama, but there remain additional daunting challenges: the economy and high employment, financial reform, energy and the environment, and, perhaps most difficult of all, how to pay for it all. Scholars from around the halls of Brookings offer their thoughts on what a shift to Republican control of the House this fall would mean for President Obama.


In this edition:

  A Republican House Would Help Obama
Jonathan Rauch, Guest Scholar, Governance Studies

The health care bill’s enactment was a triumph for President Obama and one of America’s great stories of political true grit. But Obama cannot rest on his laurels, and the country cannot afford a power nap. The remaining challenges are daunting: the economy (especially employment); financial reform; energy and the environment; above all, an impending fiscal train wreck.

In the face of those challenges, here is a two-word prescription for a successful Obama presidency: Speaker Boehner.

The most important political change of the past half century is the Democrats’ and Republicans’ transformation from loose ideological coalitions to sharply distinct parties of the left and right. In Washington, the parties are now too far apart ideologically for either to count on winning support from the other side.

However, the country’s biggest problems are too large for one party to handle, at least in any consistent way. The Democrats did pass health reform on a party-line basis, a remarkable accomplishment, but they did it by the skin of their teeth and with a Senate supermajority which has evaporated. That is not a trick they can keep performing.

Under those conditions, the only way to achieve sustainable bipartisanship is to divide control of the government, forcing the parties to negotiate in order to get anything done. That pulls policy toward the center, which encourages reasonableness. And the very fact that both parties sign off on any given policy makes the public perceive that policy as more reasonable, which makes it less controversial and more sustainable. I think a bipartisan health-care reform would have been only, say, 30 percent different from the one the Democrats passed, but it would have been 50 percent better (many of the Republicans’ ideas were good) and 200 percent more popular, which would have made it 80 percent more likely to succeed. (All figures are approximate.)

It is true, as my Brookings colleague Tom Mann argues, that the two parties are not symmetrically positioned: today’s Republicans are ideologically more extreme and less diverse than today’s Democrats (or yesterday’s Republicans). But when he concludes that Republicans simply will not participate in governing, and that the best hope of solving the country’s problems is for Democrats to go it alone, he and I part company. The best way of inducing Republicans to behave responsibly is to give them responsibility. In any case, the alternative is a chimera. Democrats do not have enough votes on Capitol Hill, enough support in the public (of which only a third identifies as Democratic), or enough internal cohesion to govern sustainably on their own.

To regard the prospect of a House turnover this fall as a calamity for Democrats is understandable but short-sighted. Speaker Gingrich made it possible for Bill Clinton to leave office with glowing approval ratings by allowing him to govern from the center of the country, instead of the center of his party. Speaker Boehner would do the same for Barack Obama. 

  No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

Am I the only one struck by the oddity of Jonathan’s proposal that the best response to the historic enactment of major health reform by President Obama and the Democratic Congress is for voters to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker with the leader of the “party of no”?

His embrace of divided government as a tool for compelling bipartisan negotiations and producing reasonable and sustainable policies that deal effectively with our daunting challenges has a respectable academic pedigree (see, for example, David Mayhew’s Divided We Govern and Morris Fiorina’s new book, Disconnect) and reflects a sentiment widely shared by “responsible” editorial writers and others disturbed by deficits-and-debt and dysfunctional government.

It is also true that a loss of Democratic control of the House and/or Senate this November would not be a catastrophe for President Obama’s reelection prospects in 2012 or his personal popularity. After serious midterm setbacks, healthy economic recoveries did wonders for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and prospects for a repeat with Obama are reasonably high.

But such an electoral corrective – made possible by the normal midterm loss by the president’s party, the large number of seats at risk following big gains in 2006 and 2008, and a political overhang from the severe financial crisis and recession – would do damage to any reasonable conception of democratic accountability and send exactly the wrong signals to the two parties.

As has been well documented, the Republican minority in Congress made a rational calculation before Obama was inaugurated to pursue a strategy to kill or discredit every major policy initiative of the new administration. A unified and aggressive opposition was to be their ticket back into the majority. The Senate filibuster was an essential tool. Strong pressure was put on Republican members who were inclined to engage in serious negotiations with the majority.

The financial stabilization program (initiated under President Bush), the economic stimulus, and health reform were the GOP’s major targets. While their efforts to kill failed, their messaging succeeded brilliantly. The stimulus was nothing but wasteful and ineffective government spending; the Wall Street bailout was an unnecessary giveaway to irresponsible actors; health reform was a government takeover of medical care and a fateful step on the road to socialism.

President Obama and Democrats in Congress struggled to govern in the face of horrendous economic conditions, major policy ambitions, and a disciplined opposition party. It wasn’t pretty but it was largely successful. The economic abyss was avoided. Their policies were neither ideologically extreme nor substantially at odds with consensus views of policy experts. Necessary political compromises, initially to attract Republicans and then to unify their own members, made the final products less than optimal but nonetheless responsive to the problems faced and faithful to their campaign promises.

For this Democrats should be punished and Republicans rewarded?

Those determined to force bipartisan solutions in an intensely partisan environment underestimate the serious differences between the two parties (think Barack Obama vs. Paul Ryan) and would have us believe it is both possible and desirable to forge grand compromises between them. I think it is better if Democrats have an opportunity to continue to try to deliver on their and the country’s agenda, and then be judged by the electorate on their results.

An Obama-Pelosi partnership looks more promising to me than Jonathan’s alternative.

  The Dynamics Within the Republican Party
Henry Aaron, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies

To weigh the arguments Jon and Tom have advanced, I think it is essential to focus on the internal dynamics within the Republican party. The party for many years was a blend of points of view. It once encompassed Tory conservatives who believed that government should make capitalism work by caring for those who lose in the competitive struggle, big-business advocates of fiscal prudence, small-town conservatives deeply suspicious of the federal government, libertarians resistant to more-than-minimal government, and nut-cases sure that socialism and communism lurked behind every proposal for government action advocated by Democrats and by many of their fellow Republicans.

The Tory conservatives have all died, left office voluntarily, or been primaried out of existence. Republican fiscal prudence has become an endangered species. Increasingly, the Congressional Republican party has come to represent the last three groups. They see their duty in frustrating action by a deplorable president and his fellow Democrats — born abroad, according to many, and therefore ineligible to be president. They voted almost unanimously against fiscal stimulus to combat the recession. They voted with complete unanimity against a health reform bill that, as conservative David Frum argues persuasively, rested heavily on conservative ideas that many current Republican members of Congress once supported. This strategy (the political version of Nancy Reagan’s approach to drugs: ‘Just say no!’) partly reflects honest conviction and partly political strategy to regain control of Congress and then the presidency.

So, what Jon suggests is that if the Republicans win a smashing victory in November with this strategy, those who designed it will stand back and say: “We just won control of the House. We gained several seats in the Senate. Hey, time to stop with that strategy!”

Furthermore, this reversal would have to come from House and Senate leaders who have just spent a year spewing utter nonsense on health reform without any seeming embarrassment (for the justice of this charge, see the various entries in on John Boehner during 2009).

So, although I tend to go along with a wry comment attributed to Damon Runyon: ‘nothing in this life is longer than 8 to 5,’ I have to say, Jon, that your suggestion that, after displacing Nancy Pelosi with a strategy that contains no scintilla of bipartisanship, John Boehner would suddenly embrace bipartisanship, strikes me as a bet I would not be willing to accept, even at odds vastly longer than 8 to 5.

Why Not Try A Third Party
Isabel V. Sawhill, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies

My colleagues above make excellent arguments for and against the proposition that we need divided government to address the nation’s major challenges, and I find myself agreeing with much of what they write. However, I am not persuaded that the alternatives will produce what is needed, which is—to use Obama’s phrase—to change the way Washington works. The only way to do that, in my view, is to begin now to build a movement for a third party that would take on our current dysfunctions more directly.

As Jonathan notes, the current ideological divide is very wide. And as Tom notes, this divide is as much tactical as it is ideological; that is, even those Republicans who might have liked to work with their Democratic colleagues were subjected to strict party discipline and their policy preferences subsumed by the overriding objective of defeating an incumbent president and setting up the preconditions for a takeover of at least one house in 2010.

Jonathan argues that divided government would force the two parties to find common ground and that both would move to the center. Although it’s an appealing argument, I doubt that it would happen in practice.

First, the two parties are both very dug in to their existing positions and cannot easily move away from them without sounding like they have no firm principles at all. For example, most Republicans have pledged to never raise taxes. But without any new revenues we cannot possibly address our fiscal challenges much less make investments in education, infrastructure, the environment and the like. Democrats cannot be blamed for thinking that, without some flexibility on fiscal issues, very little else is possible. Democratic leaders such as Steny Hoyer have gone quite far toward extending an olive branch to the other side in the form of a willingness to put entitlement spending on the table, but there has been no reciprocation on the right.

Second, even should Republicans take over one or both houses of Congress, there is no guarantee that they won’t want to go for broke with their current political tactics. Why should they be content with governing from the center? Won’t they have visions of snaring the White House in 2012 or 2016, a vision that will require continued attempts to block and tackle, not help move the ball down the field. To be sure, it’s harder to be “the party of no” when you’re in charge of at least one part of the government, but it’s not at all impossible. You simply pretend to be interested in compromise and to reaching out to the other side but give very little behind closed doors.

With this as background, I am waiting for a leader who is able to articulate the need for more sensible and pragmatic solutions. Such a leader would start a movement of like-minded citizens that eventually culminates in a third party win of the presidency. I realize that the history of successful third parties is not encouraging, but the most potent political force in this country right now is a public that is completely disillusioned and angry about the way Washington works and less extreme in its view than its representatives in Congress. Thus, the times are ripe for greater success than in the past. To make this work, I think we would need to adopt the kind of alternative voting plan (recently touted by Tom Friedman in the New York Times) that would insure people that if they voted for a third party candidate it wouldn’t hurt the chances of their second choice in the process. Thus, if you were an independent but conservatively oriented, you would be allowed to vote for the third party candidate with the knowledge that your vote would automatically go to the Republican if your candidate didn’t win. Even if the independent candidate didn’t win, but only did as well as Ross Perot in 1992, this would have an impact on the election-year debate and potentially on the policies of the next president. Those of us who served in the Clinton administration know that Perot’s focus on the deficit and his electoral success had an influence not just on public opinion but also on the actions that were taken by our administration.

In conclusion, I applaud my colleagues for a lively debate on these issues and hope others will join the fray.