How to Block the Liberal Agenda
Washington, meet Barack Obama. Barack Obama, remeet the Republican senators who are now going to help define your presidency.
Democrats won big on Tuesday but not big enough. The voters’ rebuke of the GOP was brutal, though not so cruel as to hand Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid the 60 votes they needed to grease a sweeping agenda. The GOP still owns a filibuster, and that is as big a factor in this new “era” as is our president-elect.
Democrats, who now officially own 55 seats, are still salivating over that distant 60. But Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is holding on, and Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss is positioned to win a run-off. Norm Coleman in Minnesota is in for an ugly recount, but he starts with a lead. If Mr. Reid goes postal on the McCain-supporting Joe Lieberman, Republicans could also find themselves with occasional help from the liberated Connecticuter.
These numbers aren’t an accident, but instead say something about America’s interest in a check on the Democratic majority. Mr. Obama won Oregon by 15 percentage points, yet thousands of his own supporters pulled the lever for Republican Gordon Smith, who lost narrowly. In Minnesota Mr. Obama won by 10, yet Mr. Coleman leads. Alaskans appear to have voted for a felon in part to deny the left a supermajority.
The biggest Republican victory this week was in fact that of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose considerable tactical skills will now be in even greater demand. Democrats have a healthy fear of Mr. McConnell’s abilities, one reason Chuck Schumer chose to divert $6 million into the long-shot Kentucky race, rather than keep it in say, Minnesota, where his boy Al Franken is now losing.
Mr. McConnell’s strength has been putting up a principled opposition, without earning the reputation for Tom Daschle-like obstruction. And from the sounds of his opening statement this week, his game plan is the same, only with higher stakes. Mr. McConnell “stands ready” to hear Mr. Obama’s “ideas for implementing his campaign promises of cutting taxes, increasing energy security, reducing spending and easing the burden of an immense and growing national debt.” Note he is not standing ready to negotiate on eliminating union secret ballots, nationalizing health care, enacting a climate program, or over-regulating the financial industry.
Nevertheless, Mr. Reid is closer to 60 votes than he was before, and he is already strategizing about which Republicans to pick off on specific issues. At the top of every list is Maine’s Olympia Snowe. Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter is up for re-election in 2010. Susan Collins and Mr. Coleman (should he return) will also be targets. And Mr. McConnell will have already lost those battles for which he was dependent on a veto, such as more funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Then again, the minority leader has several things going for him. Congressional Democrats will overreach, as they are already doing. (House liberal Henry Waxman is moving to unseat fellow House liberal John Dingell — who he doesn’t find liberal enough — from the Energy and Commerce committee.) This means tension with a President Obama, who may not be so eager to throw out his “bipartisan” image on Day One. Republicans can sit back to watch that fight.
Democrats also can’t depend on President Bush to save them from themselves. All but one of Mr. Reid’s 51 caucus members voted last year to proceed with legislation eliminating union secret ballots, and all 50 knew it would never become law. Mr. McConnell has his own list of vulnerable Democrats who he — with the help of the business community — will remind of the electoral consequences of enacting a measure hated by 80% of the country, according to polls. Maybe Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, who hails from a right-to-work state, will vote to allow his constituents to be bullied by union thugs. Or, when it comes down to it, maybe not.
Mr. Obama and his party are meanwhile now the sole political proprietors of a major financial crisis. Revenues will contract, even as Mr. Obama promises tax cuts. That alone may temper ambitions on issues like health care, which Democrats may now have to approach piecemeal. But also expect to see the GOP rediscover a devotion to fiscal responsibility. Any Democratic proposal, for anything, will elicit howls of “deficit spending.” Some Republicans are actually looking forward to January.
And let’s not forget that the left has spent eight years helpfully showing Republicans how they might make life difficult. Democrats have insisted a filibuster for judicial and cabinet positions is “essential” and that a president “must” consult with the opposition. Mr. Obama himself voted to filibuster Bush picks. They don’t call these things “precedents” for nothing. Democrats have also highlighted procedural tools that the right could now use to slow Senate business to a slug’s pace.
So yes, it is a new day in Washington. Just don’t go thinking it will be an easy one.