Changing Who Runs the Senate Won't Fix Washington

As with Obama in 2012, there will be no mandate for the GOP should Republicans win the upper chamber this year.

Two months ago, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked President Obama why it mattered who controls the Senate. Obama stammered, "Well—I'll tell you what "¦"—and then struggled to answer.

"First of all, there's a sharp difference between the Democratic agenda and the Republican agenda. And the American people need to know that," Obama told Todd. "If you've got a Democratic Senate, that means bills are being introduced to raise the minimum wage. That's something Democrats support. We think America needs a raise."

But, of course, Democrats couldn't get a minimum-wage increase to Obama's desk when they controlled the Senate. So what difference does it make? Same problem for his other issues: Equal pay for women, family-leave benefits, affordable college tuition, and infrastructure spending. By the time Obama finished, he was grasping desperately at clichés: "Here's the issue. I think elections matter."

There's a reason why Todd's question was so hard for Obama to answer. It doesn't really matter who wins the Senate.

Of course, the midterms are not without consequences. Gaining control of the Senate calendar and committees through 2016 would give the GOP a stronger hand in the shaping of the federal judiciary (particularly if a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court), investigating the White House, and curbing Obama's agenda.

But don't buy the hype. Democrats and Republicans exaggerate the importance of their campaigns. How many times do we need to hear, "This is the most important election of our lifetime," before realizing that neither of the two major parties can produce an election of durable importance?

More to the point, neither party is capable of achieving what most Americans want—a bipartisan, transparent, pragmatic approach to governance that addresses big problems in an era of socioeconomic change.

Here are five reasons why changing control of the Senate on Tuesday won't fundamentally change things:

  • Obama can't or won't compromise. Hemmed in by his liberal base and a hostage to his own limitations as a leader, Obama has not moved beyond the lip service of his brand. In 2012, he predicted that his reelection would "break the fever" of Washington gridlock. How has that worked out? Now he says a better-than-expected showing for Democrats on Tuesday would be the antidote. "I think what it does is to send a message to Republicans that people want to get stuff done," Obama told Todd. We know how this movie ends.
  • Republicans can't or won't compromise. Hemmed in by his conservative base and a hostage to his limitations as a leader, the GOP's top man in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, let ideology and self-preservation intensify dysfunction in Washington. Why would it be any different with McConnell in charge? My colleague Molly Ball of The Atlantic points to an oxymoron in the GOP message: Republicans say that if they win Tuesday, they'll stop gridlock and stop Obama's agenda. That's a lie: They know they can't do both. "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," she wrote.
  • There are no mandates on Election Day. The night Obama won reelection, I argued that a small-bore and brutish campaign guaranteed the president a shallow victory, one without a mandate. "Mandates are rarely won on election night," I wrote Nov. 6, 2012. "They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching." Ditto, now, for the GOP. Two years ago, I thought Obama was capable of building a mandate through good governing. I was wrong. My new prediction: Republicans will misread this election as badly as Obama did his reelection.
  • Any GOP gains will be short-lived. Even if you dismiss my pessimism about the GOP, there is the inconvenient fact that six first-term Republicans senators will face reelection in states Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. Politico reporter Burgess Everett called 2016 a "mirror image" of this year's Senate campaign. Furthermore, even a wave election in 2014 won't automatically fix the structural and image problems that many GOP strategists worry will block their road to the White House.
  • Politics will still be broken. History will consider the 2014 midterms a referendum against the status quo, against Washington, against the political establishment, and against incumbency. While nothing about the election suggests growing support for the GOP brand, multiple signs point toward a rise of populism that might transform—even radically disrupt—the institutions of politics and government.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, disapprove of the do-nothing Congress, and have lost faith in the presidency. Most Americans hold a negative view of the GOP. The approval ratings of Obama and his party are underwater, meaning more people disapprove than approve.

The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as independents is rising sharply, from 31 percent in 2004 to 44 percent in September. Independent candidates ran stronger than expected races in Kansas, South Dakota, and Alaska.

Two-thirds of registered voters say they would like to see "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of change in the direction Obama is leading the country. Ending gridlock in Washington ranked behind only job creation on the list of issues driving voting decisions.

Things are no better in the states. Nearly a dozen governors face various levels of danger due to sour electorates. Dysfunction has deep roots: In the busy state legislatures, nearly 35 percent of incumbents ran unopposed in either their primary or general-election bids, according to one estimate, up from 25.9 percent just two years ago.

Channeling their readers, newspaper editors across the country endorsed the lesser of two evils. In an endorsement titled "Disappointment vs. Danger," The Charlotte Observer editorial board reluctantly backed Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. "She has done about the minimum you'd expect from a U.S. senator." The Nashua Telegraph backed GOP candidate Scott Brown while admonishing him. "Stop claiming you are from here," the editorial said. "It's disingenuous."

The Staten Island Advance endorsed Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, even as it demanded that he step down from office if convicted of the criminal charges against him. The editorial board lamented that the race isn't one where "both candidates are of high quality and high integrity."

"Amen!" replied America.