As I mentioned during our most recent podcast episode, I’m very curious to see how the GOP’s likely continued control over the Senate will affect Biden’s approach to governance. For many on the left, it’s extremely disappointing that the Democrats failed to gain control of the upper house, even with the 2020 Senate map slightly biased in their favor. I share this frustration, especially because I fear that Republicans will yet again play hardball with Biden’s nominations to the federal bureaucracy and the courts. The upshot is that Democrats will likely not be able to build the cabinet team they want or pass major partisan bills and reforms through Congress (for better and worse, I might add). It also means that we are likely doomed to see more shenanigans over judicial appointments a la Garland. But of course my frustration is likely a source of comfort for Republicans, who can rest assured that there will be no massive lurch to the left even with Trump out of the White House. As someone firmly ensconced within the moderate wing of the Democratic party, I can’t say that I lack sympathy for this view. Nevertheless, I’d rather see a narrow Democratic majority that empowered center left moderates than a narrow Republican majority led by the inveterate obstructionist Mitch McConnell.
But doom and gloom is boring. This is a frustrating election for everyone, I think, as both sides failed to really secure their electoral objectives. Still, at some point one must accept reality and move forward. So instead of relitigating past transgressions and lamenting the lack of united government, I want to quickly suggest some reasons for optimism. After all, despite all the vexing problems that the next two years of divided government will create, there are still many areas where compromise and mutual gain can occur.
Why Democrats Should be Happy
1. They control the Executive – Defeating a sitting president and poaching previously safe Republican states like Georgia is no small accomplishment, so Democrats should appreciate the magnitude of their success even as they grapple with their poor performance in down ballot races. Their victory also gives them control over Executive agencies, which possess an enormous amount of regulatory and enforcement power. The president alone possesses enormous power to shape policy and regulations via tools such as executive orders. So, even without the Senate, Democrats can implement major changes. They can halt Trump’s inhumane immigration practices; they can reimpose environmental regulations; and they can eliminate the absurd tariffs imposed against American allies. This strength is magnified by the fact that Democrats still control the House, making it almost impossible for Senate Republicans to circumvent or override executive actions. In short, Democrats can significantly change national policy, even if their more ambitious agenda items, such as major climate spending and Puerto Rico statehood, now seem stillborn.
2. The Senate saves Democrats from infighting – While it’s assuredly disappointing that McConnell will have the last say over Democratic appointees, in some ways this could be a blessing in disguise. For one, it grants Biden cover to nominate more moderate advisors and cabinet secretaries that are more closely aligned with his centrist preferences. If the Senate were controlled by Democrats, by contrast, Biden would likely be compelled to appoint far more progressive advisers who hold views that are at odds with his ideological vision. But perhaps more important for the party is that McConnell’s power largely removes the possibility of a civil war among Democrats. If no progressive appointee can win confirmation anyway, then progressives’ incentives to run a scorched earth campaign against centrist Democrats are much reduced. This is a huge advantage because it means that Biden will have a united, if still heterogeneous, front behind him just as Republicans are forced to define themselves in a post-Trump world.
3. They are favored in 2022 – This is probably a bit of an overstatement given that off-year elections tend to hurt the party in power, but the 2022 Senate map looks very tough for Republicans. This means that if they’re patient and smart, Democrats might just reclaim control of the upper chamber. This would grant them far more freedom of action with appointments, thus increasing Biden’s ability to achieve policy victories and place key judicial appointees during the leadup to the 2024 presidential election. But even if Democrats don’t retake the Senate, their structural advantage in 2022 means that, at least for now, McConnell will have to tread carefully. If he’s too intransigent and under-handed, he might just alienate enough voters to cost himself control of the upper house. Thus, just as Biden is constrained, so is McConnell. The upshot is that both have an incentive to find compromises where they can.
Why Republicans Should be Happy
1. They did well in state elections – Republicans of course deserve credit for holding onto the Senate and even winning some narrow gains in the House, but perhaps their biggest success was in retaining control in many state legislatures and governors’ mansions. With redistricting on the horizon, it was absolutely crucial that the GOP not get routed in state races, as that would allow Democrats to redraw maps in their favor. So although the GOP may have lost the White House, their bases of power and gerrymandered maps will likely remain fairly unchanged. This means that they have a strong foundation from which to build going forward.
2. There’s no risk of socialism – This is true for two reasons. The most obvious is that the Senate (probably) remains in Republican control, so there is no chance that extremely progressive legislation passes Congress. And, as already noted, the GOP can effectively block any attempt by Biden to appoint far left cabinet secretaries and judges. Republicans must be careful to avoid being overly obstructionists given that this approach could generate backlash, but they are in a strong position to check progressive elements within the Democratic Party. The second reason that the risk of socialism is overblown is that Republicans held the Senate. I guess this is the same as the first point, but what I mean is that there seems to be no appetite for socialism among American voters. My home state of Georgia is instructive: it voted Trump out but is almost certain to vote two Republicans into the Senate. That several other states in which Democratic candidates were favored (especially Maine and North Carolina) ultimately selected Republican senators suggests that this phenomenon isn’t unique to Georgia. While Republicans might be disheartened that America doesn’t like Trump, they can at least take solace in the fact that American voters seem to be equally skeptical of socialism.
Why Americans Should be Happy
Moving beyond partisan affiliations, I think it’s fair to say that all Americans should be happy that another contentious election was conducted in an orderly and fair way despite a raging virus, steep economic crisis, and divisive political environment. American political institutions are old and sclerotic, but America’s democratic norms are still quite robust. Every American should be proud of that. And while neither side can claim complete victory, there is still plenty of room for positive sum cooperation in DC. From supporting allies to expanding economic opportunity and enhancing American infrastructure, there are many areas where the parties are not as far apart as their rhetoric suggests. And with an experienced Senator and avowed bridge-builder at the helm, the rank partisanship of the Trump era might diminish, if only by a little bit. Elections are stressful, especially if your party comes out behind, but there is still much to celebrate regardless of your party affiliation. Here’s to four more years of the American experiment!