R: How will President Obama react to the shift in power in Congress?
K: That’s the question everyone is asking and we don’t know the answer. If he is like Bill Clinton, he will adopt the posture of graceful opportunism. He will say ‘I’m not totally wedded to these principles because I want to do what’s best for the country. I am going to admit that the Republicans will teach me some useful lessons.’ But, maybe he is more of an ideologue who resents all this and he’ll continue to say, ‘Sure, I want bipartisanship but only on my terms.’ Maybe he doesn’t make a correction in terms of revising the health care bill or really stopping the growth of spending and getting serious about deficit reduction.
If he digs in his heels like an ideological liberal it’s going to be a very interesting development that could wind up splitting his own Democratic party between a liberal Obama-Pelosi wing and a centrist Clinton wing. It could also make the American people more critical of Obama. They could come to see him as a polarizer and a more negative figure. Right now, they are just disapproving of his performance. I don’t think they are condemning him as a person but if he doesn’t adopt this Clinton-role as a graceful opportunist, he will be viewed as a stubborn ideologue.
R: In a WSJ editorial Wednesday, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) told his newly elected Tea-Party backed senators not to be “coerced” by Republicans, instead urging them to put on their “boxing gloves” and “fight.” Did the success of the tea party create a potentially damaging tension within the Republican party?
K: I think just like the Democratic Party, there are factions within the Republican Party. There is a moderate faction, sometimes called ‘establishment Republicans,’ and then there is this Tea Party, which is the more conservative faction. Just like the Democratic Party, they are going to have to figure out how to manage those factions.
My guess is that it will be easier to manage in the Republican Party because the two factions are not as inconsistent. They both want limited government, they both want to put the brakes on the expansion of big government, they both want to reduce the deficit and they both want to revise or change the health care bill. The split within the Republican Party is more tactical while the split within the Democratic Party is more philosophical.
R: Prop 19, a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana sales and use in California, was defeated narrowly with 53.8 percent of voters voting ‘No.’ The measure drew support from some Tea Party candidates, the California NAACP and several law enforcement groups but many argue that Attorney General Eric Holder’s promise to “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws may have swayed the vote in the final weeks. What is your reaction to Prop 19 being defeated?
K: Interestingly, the same people who voted in Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer also voted against legalizing marijuana for recreational use just like they voted against gay marriage two years ago. Even a state like California, which is known for being a pretty liberal state on economic issues and the role of government and unions, on these important social issues, the majority of California is still fairly socially conservative, which can sometimes be a surprise to people.
Raymond: What is the take-away message from the Midterm election results this week?
Kraynak: I would call it a correction. In 2008, we had the election of President Obama and a Democratic Congress. They thought it was a mandate not only to fix the economy, but also to transform the country. The people really only understood it as a mandate to fix the economy. The transforming of the country – meaning the expansion of the power of the federal government in health care, the financial industry, the automobile industry, possibly to the energy sector with cap and trade – the people have interpreted this to be unnecessary or, in some cases, bad for the economy. So they said they wanted a correction. They said the whole expansion of government is probably making things worse so let’s drop the whole transformation of America and get back to the question of fixing the economy. In effect, this means creating jobs so that the unemployment problem can be solved.
There is also a deeper lesson. I think the American people are also saying that America is a center-right country, meaning they have a certain view of the limited role of government in people’s lives. The government should be there as a safety net, not for entitlement. The social values of Americans are more traditional than those of Obama, Pelosi and the liberal wing of the Democratic party.
We need to restore America to the policies and values of a center-right country. I’d come back to those two words with this election: correction and restoration.
R: Will a Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate create a Congressional gridlock in which legislation will be impossible to pass?
K: In the short-term, I think there will be a period of gridlock as both sides figure out their strategies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One thing that Rand Paul said, which I think he’s right about, is that part of the strategy for checking big government is gridlock. It’s not necessarily good to continuously pass bills that require more and more spending that we don’t have. Gridlock could be understood as a principle for checking the growth of big government and the Republicans may understand it that way. At the same time, gridlock might be a good sell for Democrats two years from now. It’s almost like a poker game. We’ll see how the two sides play their hand.
Robert Kraynak has been a Professor in the Colgate Political Science department for 32 years. He has published four books and is Director of the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization. He has a B.A. from Cornell and a PhD from Harvard.