The Challenge of Governing With a Congressional Majority

Republicans and Democrats face a set of obstacles next year, no matter who holds the most seats.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it.” It is one of the more famous and penetrating axioms of our time and one that—in some measure—applies to Democrats and Republicans today.

The Republican Party, for its part, appears to be in disarray, in light of a leaked 2005 video clip that exposed Donald Trump bragging about groping women. The revelation caused a number of Republican elected officials to reject their party’s nominee. The second presidential debate was also disconcerting. Trump chose to reinforce and excite his own base of enthusiasts, to defy the party’s establishment, and to double down on the kinds of policies that alienate the broader groups of voters the GOP needs to secure a win in November, including educated white women and minorities. But despite the chaos and meltdown Trump is generating, he continues to be the Republican standard-bearer.

It is safe to say, however, that Trump’s chances of winning the White House have shrunk considerably from an already difficult place. Meanwhile, Republicans aiming at maintaining majorities in the House and Senate are left near panic.

But for those Republican House and Senate candidates who have stuck with him, even after the 2005 video clip, and even if they have tried to have it both ways by “supporting” but not endorsing him, they will be bombarded with questions and ads for the next few weeks, tying them to every Trump statement and action. Any equivocation will likely mean flak from his ardent supporters. Any refusal to separate from him means having to justify the unjustifiable. It is no wonder then that Paul Ryan told his colleagues that he would not campaign with—or defend—Trump and would instead focus solely on holding the House.

None of this means that it is a certainty that Republicans will lose the Senate or a strong possibility that they will lose the House. Given the nature of House districts and the tribal nature of partisanship, Republicans are still favored to hold a majority in the chamber.

But the number of Republican-held Senate seats in play is larger than it was a week ago, and the odds of Democratic victories in blue and purple states is greater. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, the open Republican seat in Indiana, even John McCain of Arizona and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, while favored, are in jeopardy. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have been all but conceded by the GOP. And the one vulnerable seat held by Democrats, Harry Reid’s in Nevada, looks more challenging for Republican Joe Heck, who was heckled at a campaign event when he condemned Trump. A combination of Republican division and the activation of Latino and African American voters adds to their woes.

All of this raises interesting questions about the dynamics of Congress next year, and the challenges they create for governance. Democrats are talking giddily about winning big in the Senate and actually being able to contest for a majority in the House, achieving the trifecta of full control of the reins of power in Washington.

Is it a possibility? Perhaps, but it might be a stretch. Democrats need a net gain of 31 seats in the House, which would require running the table in all the contestable districts. If it happens, along with a Democratic majority in the Senate, it would be the first time since 2010 that the United States has had a unified government. And expectations would be sky-high.

Democrats might win a House majority by a razor-thin margin—perhaps three to five seats. That brings great dividends, to be sure—restoring the speakership of Nancy Pelosi, taking control of the administrative apparatus of the House, taking over all the committee and subcommittee chairmanships, and controlling the agenda. Still, 2017 will not be like 2009 or 2010, when in parliamentary fashion, Democrats united over GOP opposition to enact the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and much more. And that is where the Shaw axiom comes into play.

The 35 or so seats picked up by Democrats would include a couple dozen or more in strongly Republican districts. The newly elected members, knowing the makeup of their electorates and knowing the usual pattern in mid-term elections, would likely be exceedingly skittish from the start. At the same time, the expectations of the left would push the agenda in their direction, creating a very difficult push-pull both for a President Clinton and her speaker ally.

If past history is any guide, most of those freshmen will be in full CYA mode, distancing themselves from their party and president. And any move by Clinton to the center, in the hope of either corralling them or trying to win over some Republicans, would be blasted by the left wing of the party.

In the case that Democrats fall just short of claiming the majority, Republicans in charge of the House will bear some responsibility for governing. But the party will be at war with itself. For Ryan, the George Bernard Shaw axiom would hit soon with full force. The renegade Freedom Caucus wing of the party, for one, will be disproportionately stronger than it is now. And an election meltdown—loss of the presidency and the Senate, as well as big losses in the House—would exacerbate the internal divisions in the party, with many bitter at Ryan and the establishment for abandoning Trump. In fact, there has been talk for some time about a core of angry conservatives voting against Ryan for speaker at the beginning of the new Congress, to send him a message. With no room for defections, that message could be devastating. It could mean a big headache for him, and a big embarrassment for the party—and, if he ultimately prevailed, a much weaker speaker.

These outcomes are not invariably gloomy. It is always possible if Democrats did take the House that those new Democratic lawmakers would throw caution to the winds and unite to pass a robust agenda—infrastructure, health reform revision, tax reform to include the Clinton plan to raise taxes on the rich and corporations, toughening of Dodd-Frank, restructuring student aid and lowering tuition for lower income students, maybe even passing comprehensive immigration reform. One could make a case that dramatic action by Congress to solve problems would be the best formula for winning a second term in a hostile district.

If there is a narrow GOP majority in the House, there may well be pressure, and reason, in the first couple of months of the presidency, with a public desire to heal the wounds of a disastrous, divisive election, to do a few things together. A major infrastructure bill, coupled with corporate tax reform, would likely come first, while a revision of the Affordable Care Act would be a strong second option. Some kind of immigration bill would be possible, but a long shot. Such actions could give back a bit of traction to problem-solving conservatives in the GOP.

As Democrats discovered in 2010 and 2014, when a party holds all the reins of power in Washington, or even when it just holds the White House, it is in the crosshairs when the midterm arrives. The president’s partisans become disillusioned when they don’t get everything they expected, and their turnout declines; the opposition’s partisans become angry, and they show up to express their frustration. Mid-term electorates reflect a different demographic more generally—whiter, more male, older, in the remaining, if dwindling, Republican wheelhouse. The danger for both parties, and for the country, is that Republicans will fall back early on the strategy that gave them big victories in both 2010 and 2014—obstruct everything, delegitimize the process and the outcomes, ignite populist anger. A Senate recapture would also be very likely—in 2018, there are three times as many Democrats up as Republicans. And there could be enough gains in the House to restore a much more comfortable majority.

But it would be a tenuous majority, built yet again on a fragile and dwindling slice of the electorate, and moving Republicans even further from competing for a national majority—while also further marginalizing the problem-solving conservative wing of the GOP. It would mean even more dysfunction in Washington and less ability to govern, with more traction for the darkest forces in American life. And that would mean an addendum to the Shaw axiom: A bigger tragedy is neither getting nor losing one’s heart’s desire, but descending into the depths.