Previewing the Midterm Elections

Brookings expert William Galston answered your questions on the upcoming elections, discussing what’s at stake, as well as possible outcomes for both parties, in a web chat moderated by POLITICO Senior Editor David Mark.

12:30 David Mark: Six days out from the midterm elections, there’s plenty to discuss. We look forward to your thoughts.

12:30 [Comment From Jennie: ] How likely is it that the Republicans will take control of Congress?

12:32 Bill Galston: There’s wide agreement that the Republicans will take over the House of Representatives. It will be harder for them to take over the Senate, but not impossible. We’ll know pretty early on Tuesday evening whether or not they have a chance. If they lose either in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, the Democrats will keep control.

12:32 [Comment From Rebecca: ] What do the midterm outcomes mean for some of the key pieces of legislation that are (or should be) on the table -i.e. health care reform, immigration reform, and economic recovery?

12:33 Bill Galston: If we return to divided government, there is likely to be a period of confrontation early on. After that, the parties may find a way to cooperate on legislation–but only if the American people insist on it. History suggests that the voters don’t send people to Washington just to yell at each other for the next two years.

12:34 [Comment From Tracy: ] Win, lose, draw, how important is the Nov 2 elections in terms of validating Tea Party power/influence?

12:36 Bill Galston: Much will depend on how Tea Party candidates perform–especially in key Senate races. The Tea Party insurgency has probably already cost Republicans the Senate seat in Delaware that would otherwise have been theirs. Watch states such as Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky, and especially Nevada to see how Tea Party candidates do. If Sharron Angle beats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that will be the big story of the evening.

12:36 [Comment From Shin: ] In an unlikely scenario where the Senate is tied 50-50, which side will chair the respective Committees? Is there some guidance written in the Constitution or in the Senate rules that specify such a 50/50 case?

12:39 Bill Galston: Yes. The Constitution provides that when the Senate is evenly divided, the Vice President (who presides) may cast the tie-breaking vote. So if the Senate ends up 50-50, VP Biden will break the tie, and Democrats will have the majority for purposes of organizing, chairing the committees, etc. But there’s a wrinkle: it’s not impossible that a conservative Democrat or independent Joe Lieberman could switch sides, giving the Republicans 51 votes.

12:39 [Comment From Tom: ] In general do you think young voters will turn out?

12:40 Bill Galston: Probably at much lower levels than they did in 2008. In general, young people are less likely to vote, and it takes unusual circumstances to get them to the polls in large numbers. 2008 was such a time, but it won’t be repeated in 2010.

12:40 [Comment From Stephanie: ] What are the similarities of this year election with the 1994 midterms?

12:42 Bill Galston: There are lots of parallels, including disappointment with the newly elected president and a conservative insurgency. The interesting question is whether the parallel will continue afterward. Remember that Newt Gingrich and Co made the mistake of believing that they could run the country from their end of Pennsylvania Ave. They tried until the American people told them to stop it, and then they sat down seriously with President Clinton. Will history repeat itself in 2011? Stay tuned.

12:43 [Comment From .Jimmy S.: ] What are the prospects for a government shutdown?

12:44 Bill Galston: Alas, much greater than zero. Recall that the past two shutdowns(in 1990 and 1995) were triggered by disputes over the budget. We’re set to have another one, and some conservatives have already said that this time they’ll shut the government down and keep it shut until the Democrats and the president give way, which won’t happen.

12:44 [Comment From Pascal: ] What is the synergy between the Republican Party and the Tea Party?

12:47 Bill Galston: About three quarters of Tea Party sympathizers are either Republicans or leaning in that direction, and I would bet that at least that percentage will end up voting for Republican candidates next Tuesday. They have brought new grassroots energy into the party, and they have made it possible for voters to distinguish between the Bush-era Republicans and the latest crop, which is advantageous politically. When Democrats say that a Republican congress would mean a return to Bush policies, a majority of voters disagree.

12:47 [Comment From Fernanda: ] What would president Obama have to change in his approach in order to get bipartisan support, working both sides of the aisle, the way he suggested before being elected?

12:49 Bill Galston: No doubt there will be a debate about exactly that within the White House (by some accounts it has already started). The President is almost certain to reach out his stand, no later than his 2011 State of the Union address. He will probably emphasize items on which agreement may be possible, such as energy and education. But there are others on which a confrontation seems unavoidable–especially if Republicans try to undermine health reform.

12:49 [Comment From Shin: ] Speaking of parallels to 1994, the GOP had better opinion poll numbers then than in 2010. In 2010, Democrats are more popular (though both aren’t popular). In that case, why would their unpopularity drive them to score a better result this time than in 1994?

12:52 Bill Galston: Two reasons. First, 2010 is largely a protest against economic conditions, and incumbents are always the object of the protest. And second, the most energized and enthusiastic voters this year are mainly conservatives, and that will have a large impact on the result. If people participated at the same rate across the ideological spectrum, Republicans would win only a modest victory. But that’s not going to happen.

12:52 [Comment From Scott: ] Suppose the Dems hold the House by a very slim margin. Is it possible that a Republican would be elected Speaker?

12:53 Bill Galston: No, but Nancy Pelosi almost certainly wouldn’t be either. Republicans would probably join forces with moderate Democrats from the South and Midwest to elect a Blue Dog Democrat.

12:53 [Comment From Karen: ] Is the insanely large amount of money being spent on campaigns this year a record? Seems to me, with such a large federal deficit, that money could be used more productively than negative attacks on each other?

12:55 Bill Galston: I suppose, although I’ve read that we spend more money on nail polish than we do on politics. Yes, the numbers seems large, but everything is relative. In my opinion, the sources of funds and the ability of the people to know who’s giving it are more important than the absolute amounts.

12:55 David Mark: John Boehner has spoken about a devolvement of power to committee chairman in the House after more centralized control under the three most recent speakers. How likely is this?

12:57 Bill Galston: Good question. Given his past performance and recent statements, there’s reason to take him at his word. On the other hand, there are reasons why power has become concentrated in the Speaker’s office. If some committee chairs stray off the reservation and do things that weaken the standing of the party as a whole, Mr. Boehner may have no choice but to clip their wings a bit.

12:57 [Comment From Fernanda: ] What do you think will happen to Blue Dog Democrats? Are many of them at the risk of not getting re-elected? Will we see a radicalization on both sides, and not only with the Tea Party?

12:59 Bill Galston: Many of them will lose their races. In January of next year, House Republicans will be even more conservative than they are now, and most of the remaining Democrats will be liberals. Not exactly a formula for compromise, especially early on.

12:59 [Comment From Jimmy S.: ] Lindsay Graham in recent days has made comments about the possibility of working with the new Republican House Majority working with the White House on Social Security, immigration, and energy issues. Any hope for progress on any of these? Or do you suspect the same gridlock that’s pervaded these issues to continue into the new Congress?

1:00 Bill Galston: Yes, it’s possible, but only after an initial period of confrontation between the parties. The grassroots conservatives who send new representatives to Washington will expect them to stand on principle and will strongly discourage compromises, especially early in 2011.

1:00 [Comment From JimM: ] In your opinion, if the Republicans managed to pass some sort of stringent immigration legislation in both the House and Senate would Obama be likely to veto it?

1:01 Bill Galston: Absolutely.

1:01 [Comment From Stephanie: ] What do you think of the administration handling of the economic crisis? Could it be better?

1:02 Bill Galston: Regrettably, yes. For example, the policies to mitigate the housing crisis have been both unimaginative and ineffective. And I regret that the president didn’t push harder for one of his major campaign proposals–a National Infrastructure Bank that could have helped put Americans back to work in good jobs that can’t be exported.

1:03 [Comment From LeeMMBJack: ] Why has the issue of the tax cuts first by Reagan then twice by Bush – which favors the richest individuals and corporations – that will expire after 10 years by law, and would make a huge difference in the deficit – being neglected by all media other than MSNBC and liberal groups such as the Huffington Post and Is the silence by most mainstream media including POLITICO and the Arena a clue to the control exerted by Rupert Murdoch?

1:05 Bill Galston: I have a different impression. The media have covered this issue to death, and there’s nothing new to say about it until the lame duck session of Congress convenes. At that point, we’ll see whether any compromise is possible. One thing is clear: if the Republicans succeed in extending all the tax cuts, it won’t be possible for them to reduce deficit enough to meet their own targets. This will be interesting to watch as it plays out.

1:05 [Comment From Jimmy S.: ] You wrote (persuasively) just prior to the Obama administration taking office about the public’s low trust in government, and about the need to have small victories to renew that trust. What are your thoughts on that now? Has the polling on the public’s faith in government gotten worse? Can the administration turn back the clock and start to take the kinds of small steps you outlined?

1:09 Bill Galston: Ah, one of my (few) faithful readers. I’m not surprised by the way things have played out during the past two years. Alas, trust in government is even lower than it was in November 2008. The president does have an opportunity to put a more modest agenda on the table, starting with his State of the Union address. And as Bill Clinton proved, it is possible to press the “reset” button. If Obama sticks with it, he can reshape public opinion by the fall of 2012.

1:09 David Mark: With a batch of non-establishment Republican senators heading to Washington, could the seniority system of Congress be upended? How about in the House?

1:11 Bill Galston: I would expect seniority to prevail at the beginning, with perhaps one or two exceptions (the House Appropriations Committee will be a particularly sensitive area). But the new kids on the block will keep established senior Republicans on a very short leash, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two deposed if they don’t perform.

1:11 [Comment From Jen (MD): ] Why can’t President Obama get the two parties to work together better? Isn’t that his job?

1:13 Bill Galston: While it’s what he said he would do during the campaign, he inherited a very polarized political system when he took office. In my view, he greatly underestimated the difficulty of getting the parties to work together in these circumstances. Historians will have to judge whether he could have done more to redeem his pledge.

1:13 [Comment From Shin: ] Depending on how badly the Democrats do next Tuesday, would President Obama might not seek reelection in 2012 because things not move far in the last two years of his first term?

1:14 Bill Galston: There’s almost no chance that the president wouldn’t seek reelection. And I’d be surprised if he were seriously challenged for the nomination within his own party.

1:14 [Comment From Julian F.: ] With regards to the leadership in both houses, what can we expect?

1:17 Bill Galston: For the Republicans, Mitch McConnell in the Senate, John Boehner in the House. For the Democrats, it’s more complicated. If Harry Reid wins, he’ll return as the leader of the Senate Democrats, probably as Majority Leader. If he doesn’t, Chuck Schumer (NY) and Dick Durbin (IL) will fight it out for the top spot. In the House, where Democrats are almost certain to lose their majority, Nancy Pelosi probably wouldn’t retain her leadership post and would be replaced by Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD), who now holds the #2 position.

1:17 [Comment From Julian F.: ] How will the outcome of the Midterm Elections affect the Lame Duck agenda?

1:18 Bill Galston: The better Republicans do, the less likely they are to compromise.

1:18 [Comment From LeeMMBJack: ] Still it remains true the voters being polled have an extreme unawareness of the connection between the tax cuts for the billionaires and multi-millionaires – and the deficit that Republicans are saying and being published is the problem of our economy and the fault of Obama and Pelosi?

1:20 Bill Galston: Ordinary Americans are spending most of their time these days just trying to make ends meet, and they don’t have a lot of time left over to wallow in the details of public policy. It’s the responsibility of political leaders to take the lead in educating the people about the real choices. They haven’t been doing that job very well, and our politics is the poorer for it.

1:20 [Comment From Jim: ] Why is Obama’s lack of support for Caprio an issue of whether he’s choosing the party or himself? Couldn’t it be that he recognizes a superior candidate whether or not there is a “D” next to his name. Obama is putting the people of Rhode Island before the party OR himself.

1:22 Bill Galston: That’s certainly what Obama would say, and there’s a lot to it. It’s also the case that he was unwilling (understandably) to endorse Caprio over Lincoln Chafee after Chafee had endorsed him for president. Reciprocity matters in life, and politics is part of life.

1:22 [Comment From Blah: ] To follow up your 1:18, Does that mean that you think Obama will have to move right? Do you think he has any intentions of working with the Republicans?

1:23 Bill Galston: Not in every case, but he’ll have to pick his spots. For example, it’s crystal-clear that he won’t be able to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the next Congress. So moving an energy bill without such a provision wouldn’t be “moving right” so much as bowing to reality.

1:24 [Comment From Will: ] Do you have any thoughts on John Stewart’s march this weekend?

1:24 Bill Galston: Yeah. It’s a sad commentary when a comedian is among the most serious and credible political commentators we have.

1:25 [Comment From SHG: ] Suppose the GOP takes the House and Pence steps down from Conference Chair. Do you think McCarthy would be a good bet for Whip? And who do you think would take Conference Chair?

1:27 Bill Galston: If the Republicans win a big victory in the House (gaining 50 seats or more), there will be so many new members that all calculations about the leaders their caucus might choose would have to be thrown out. No one knows how all these new people might be thinking, and veteran Republicans will have to introduce themselves all over again.

1:27 [Comment From Sally: ] As a follow up to an earlier question – do you expect Speaker Pelosi to step down as the Democratic leader if her party loses the House?

1:28 Bill Galston: Yes, I do. I can’t imagine that she would want to remain in such circumstances.

1:28 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, everybody.