What Is at Stake in the Midterm Elections?

Less than you might suspect

Harry Reid. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Harry Reid. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With the 2014 midterm elections less than two months away, it is difficult to open up a political website or listen to kibitzers on radio or cable television without hearing the latest horserace analysis. The question of whether the Republicans win control of the Senate or the Democrats hold on by a narrower margin than their current de facto 55-45 majority is important, but has less bearing on policy over the remaining two years of the Obama administration than might initially seem to be the case.

It is very easy to see that if the Republicans win control of the Senate, President Obama will be unable to pass any meaningful legislation and will become less directly involved in the policy making process as his presidency winds down. This, however, already describes the environment in Washington, where the President has been stymied by a Republican-controlled House of Representative for much of the last four years. A smaller Democratic advantage in the Senate, or even a Republican majority there, will not change this.

This political environment is exacerbated by a context in which both parties have more or less run out of ideas. The Republicans continue to run against Mr. Obama, taxes and with, decreasing fervor as each month passes, the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats, for their part, are still seeking to present themselves as the party that has begun to turn the economy around and, even six years after George W. Bush left the White House, the people that were stuck with cleaning up after Bush. Neither party has anything particularly new or interesting to offer; and the domestic political debate is increasingly stagnant. The country still faces substantial domestic policy challenges, but it is extremely unlikely the coming midterm elections will resolve any of them.

The campaign season thus far has also been characterized by the same stale battery of personal attacks, Republicans accusing Democrats of being tax and spend liberals, and Democrats accusing Republicans of being extremists, that we have seen for much of the last decade. The 2014 election is, in that respect, very similar to every election we have had in the US since 2008. The difference is that this year, because of the institutional and partisan division in Washington, there may be less at stake than usual.

According to Robert Y. Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist who studies public opinion and policy making:

“What is at stake here is how aggressive Republicans can plausibly be in attacking liberal policies and trying to take conservative policy actions…if the Republicans pick up a large number of House seats and take the Senate, they will be tempted to be aggressive in trying to move policies to the right…The one danger for the Republicans would be looking like they are overreaching and doing things the public opposes, which could hurt them in 2016.”

Mr. Shapiro’s analysis is accurate, but reflects that this election is more about positioning and the next presidential election than it is about policy making.

Although the domestic policy debate is devoid of any new ideas or even new debates, the US is facing a combination of foreign policy crises, most notably in the Middle East with the rise of ISIS and in Ukraine as Russia continues to seek to dismantle that country, of significant proportions. While it is almost certain that little will be accomplished or even meaningfully discussed regarding domestic policy in the two years following the midterm election, the same cannot be said about foreign policy. Nonetheless, because as Mr. Shapiro points out, “both parties are split internally on these (foreign policy questions),” it is unlikely that there will be significant debate or even discussion about foreign policy between now and the midterm election. This is unfortunate because these are the issues where decisions will be made that are most significant for the U.S. The question of whether and how the U.S. responds to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, for example, will have much more bearing on the future of the U.S. than whether the Republicans seek, and fail, to overturn the Affordable Care Act 10 times or 15 times.

The internal divisions within each party are what makes it so unlikely that foreign policy will play a role in this election, but also precisely why these issues should be discussed. Foreign policy is an issue that confuses, rather than reinforces, party affiliations as libertarian leaning Republicans and anti-interventionist progressives in the Democratic Party form significant blocks and disagree sharply with the mainstream of their respective parties. Among the foreign policy establishment, the consensus remains strong that the U.S. should become more involved in trying to solve problems from Kirkuk to Donetsk, but the American electorate remains wary, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, of this type of engagement. However, many Americans are also becoming aware that retreating from the international arena, at this fraught moment, may not be easy or wise.

Craig Charney of Charney Research, a polling firm that specializes in foreign policy analysis, notes that the evolving mood on foreign policy could help Republicans, “I suspect the administration’s neglect of early warnings of trouble and its failure to spell out and explain a response are contributing to a sense of unease before global threats that can hurt Democrats and be exploited by Republicans.” Mr. Charney, however, is quick to add “I doubt foreign policy will be debated in detail in the Congressional campaigns, which will be overwhelmingly domestic in focus.”

Despite this election occurring at a moment of intense and widespread foreign policy crisis, candidates have little incentive to raise these issues during the next two months. Candidates are caught between siding with the the establishment of their party and potentially angering some of their activist base or taking positions that do not reflect the views of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment and creating problems with the leadership of their respective parties. For Republicans the course is easy, attack the President for being weak and change the subject. For Democrats the course is a little tougher, offer a few platitudes about ISIS being horrific and then change the subject.

With the election only two months away and the two parties at persistent loggerheads on almost every domestic issue, it is unlikely that anything will change after the election. Barack Obama will still be president and the Republicans will control at least one house of congress. That does not mean there is little at stake in this election. It is possible that the future of NATO and even Europe will be decided in the next few months as the west continues to scramble to find a response to Mr. Putin, and that the Middle East will descend to new depths of chaos and fundamentalism in the next few years if a successful response to ISIS is not crafted. It is just unfortunate that none of the candidates or voters will be discussing much of this.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

What Is at Stake in the Midterm Elections?