The Definitive Guide to Washington Policy-Making: The Next Two Years Are About Election 2016 (Forbes.com) November 20, 2014Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
Even though the words policy and politics sound a lot alike and share a Greek origin, in practice they are usually quite different. Running for office is not the same as governing. E.J. Dionne argues in his classic book Why Americans Hate Politics that this very difference is a key part of voters’ frustration. Candidates come out of their seats in government every two or four years, make a lot of loud campaign arguments and promises, and then return to office doing nothing about anything they campaigned on.
That will be especially true following election 2014, a series of races that were really not about policy, but about President Obama’s loss of popular support for being inept and aloof. It was political punishment over performance, not policy. So Republicans really have no policy mandate, except not to be Obama. And it would be difficult for the Republican House and Senate to lead out on policy anyway since President Obama lurks in the White House with his veto pen. I think Senator Mitch McConnell had it wrong when he said the election would eliminate gridlock—it will simply relocate it from the Congress to the President’s desk. Republicans can pass bills and Obama can stop them.
This also does not feel like the 90’s when Bill Clinton was willing to play bipartisan small-ball with the Congress and get some things done. No one thinks Mr. Executive Order on immigration and Mr. Veto on healthcare repeal and reform is disposed to do that, nor do Republicans believe they were promoted to the big leagues to play small ball. So rule out that policy scenario.
What we’re left with, I’m afraid, is Election 2016 as the North Star for policy-making on both sides for the next two years. Obama will choose his few policy priorities based on what will rebuild the Democrats’ coalition for 2016. Hence he begins with executive orders on immigration, a strong “in your face” move that very few believe makes for good policy, but reenergizes the Latino coalition Democrats badly need to win in 2016. And it will be difficult for Republicans to stop him without seeming to overplay their hand—shutting down the government and the like. Ugly stuff, but it’s coming.
I believe Obama’s other policy priority, again for political reasons, is the environment and climate change. A relatively recent article of political faith among Democrats is that the American people are genuinely concerned about climate change and Republicans can be marginalized as climate-deniers and anti-science. And again, this is an area where the President can act without the Congress, as he recently demonstrated in his negotiation with China. He can give aid to other countries for this and issue more executive orders.
Despite winning the election, the Republican policy options are also relatively few. Their top priority would be to repeal Obamacare, but even Senator McConnell acknowledged that they don’t have the votes (60 to overcome a veto). May they can nip around the edges, get Democrats to agree to eliminate the excise tax on medical devices (since many of the medical device companies are in states with Democratic senators), or maybe eliminate or change the too-powerful board (IPAB).
Doing something on national security would be smart, since that’s the one issue on which normally fractious Republicans can agree. Since the President is the Commander in Chief, this isn’t an easy assignment for Congress, but they could try to reduce the sequester defense cuts. Maybe there’s room for some bipartisan agreement on trade or corporate tax reform, but I’m afraid that’s about it.
Politically what Republicans really need to do for 2016 is demonstrate that they can govern, not just oppose the President. So, even if vetoed, a legislative agenda of tax and spending cuts, market-based energy initiatives (including Keystone), a more robust defense budget—all these things could tell the country that if you only gave us a Republican president in 2016, we know what to do.
And let’s not forget policy in the states. Perhaps you haven’t examined the math lately, but during Obama’s term, Republican governors have grown from 21-31, state legislative chambers under GOP control from 36-69, with Republicans having total control of state governments in 24 states compared with the Democrats’ 7. With lots of presidential candidates in governors’ mansions (Christie, Walker, Jindal, Martinez for vice president), there is incentive to demonstrate policy success.
I’m sorry to tell you that, having just finished one campaign on the airwaves and at the election booth, the next one begins now in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.