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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Silver Linings?

There’s been an interesting exchange over at TNR between Jonathan Cohn and Jonathan Bernstein on a subject that’s not discussed much publicly but that’s in the back of most Democrats’ minds: is there some sort of silver lining in the possibility of a Republican-controlled House or Senate? Cohn outlines three such potential silver linings; and Bernstein disputes them.
I tend to agree with Bernstein that Cohn’s supposition of enhanced Democratic unity and an exposed Republican congressional leadership in the wake of a Republican sweep is questionable.
But I think Bernstein is underestimating the extent to which the massive contradictions of Republican policy messaging will blow up on them if they control either House of Congress, for the simple reason that they will be responsible for drafting a budget resolution that cannot possibly accomodate their promises to reduce the defict and cut taxes without touching extremely popular programs or going after the Pentagon. Bernstein suggests they’ll just inflate the deficit as they did under Bush and blithely blame Obama. But the one clear policy implication of the Tea Party Movement’s rise is that deficit reduction, if not (as many Republican candidates are promising this year) an actual balanced budget, is extremely conspicuous in Republican messaging and cannot be discarded as it has been in the past. Nobody with an R next to his or her name is saying “deficits don’t matter” any more. That means a Republican-drafted budget resolution is going to either split the GOP ranks or force them into politically perilous territory on domestic spending cuts, with the 2012 Republican presidential field being forced to take sides on every controversial decision.
In any event, the Cohn-Bernstein discussion is missing a pretty crucial qualifier: a Republican takeover of the House or Senate should be judged as compared to the alternative: Democratic control of Congress by margins that make any effective action absolutely impossible. Yes, it matters who controls Congress in terms of the ability to control floor and committee schedules, investigations, and (in the case of the Senate) confirmations. But the extraordinarily methodical use of obstructionist tactics by Senate Republicans over the last two years really has limited the fruits of majority status. I don’t want to overstate this argument, but you can certainly make a case that the real stakes this November are about which party will preside over congressional gridlock, and be held accountable for it.

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