Nevertheless, control of Congress is extremely valuable to certain Republican constituencies even without the White House. The ideologically committed are satisfied that a Republican Congress at least keeps President Obama from doing further harm to the country and that incremental progress has been achieved in some areas, such as reducing the federal budget deficit. Moreover, lobbyists are often successful in getting their way on appropriations bills, where the composition of spending is as important as the amount. Indeed, from the point of view of most lobbyists, control of Congress is far more valuable than control of the White House.
This wasn’t always the case. Before the Budget Act of 1974, the administration’s hand was much stronger and getting a spending priority into the president’s budget was essential to enactment. The president also had de facto line-item veto power by being able to “impound” spending he didn’t support. Since that time, power over the budget has gradually shifted from the White House to Congress.
Given that Republicans have very little they want government to do, many are quite content with gridlock. Others have naïve expectations about retaking the White House. I have heard any number of high-ranking Republicans say that neither party can hold the presidency for more than eight years; therefore, the GOP is virtually a lock to retake the White House next year. Moreover, few Republicans respect likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and many think she will be easy to beat on issues like Benghazi.
Republican members of Congress also know too well that any hint of cooperation with Democrats can whip the party’s conservative base into a frenzy that it can deny the party’s nomination to even its most senior members, such as Cantor. The belief that he was not strong enough in pressing the Republican agenda also led to the recent resignation of John Boehner.
But there are some things only a president can do. Only the president can nominate federal judges and members of the Supreme Court. The Senate may fail to confirm them, but in the end, senators may only select from among the president’s choices. And the president’s power in foreign affairs and national security is overwhelming.
As time goes by, the pressure to control the White House becomes critical, and parties historically have been willing to do what had to be done to achieve it, even if it meant nominating a candidate frowned on by much of the party’s base. This is true in both parties.
In 1952, Republicans supported Dwight Eisenhower in large part simply because he was known to be highly electable, even though much of the base would have preferred Ohio Senator Robert Taft. In 1968, they again held their noses and supported Richard Nixon because of his perceived electability after the base’s ideal candidate, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, crashed and burned in 1964. In 1992, Democrats got behind Bill Clinton for the same reason despite misgivings about his ethics and lack of commitment to traditional liberalism.