Voters are unpredictable beasts (see Greene, Alvin) but, if Republicans win all of the Senate races that they are thought likely to win in today’s elections plus my own Washington state, we will end up with a 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate. Elections are emotional occasions, so conservatives would be unlikely to say hooray to that. Maybe they should, for five reasons.
One, the rules of the Senate favor an energized minority over a bare majority. Senator Mitch McConnell only needs 41 votes to grind legislation or nominations to a halt and he will now have those votes. It would be much more difficult for a bare majority of Republicans to put together a governing coalition given some of the moderates in the caucus. Conservatives are often frustrated with those ladies from Maine, for instance, and the GOP would need them to get to 51.
Two, Democrats will be disorganized. Put aside for a second the sheer entertainment value of a prospective Senate Majority Leader having to get the very independent Joe Lieberman’s blessing and then rely on Vice President Joe Biden to cast the tie-breaking vote, hard as that may be! This would be a majority in name only and a significant number of Democrats would want to work with Republicans with an eye toward re-election in 2012.
Three, with such a divided Senate, the coming conservative House would be the engine that drives the legislative process. After the 1994 elections, remember, the fights were often between the conservative Republican House and the more moderate Republican Senate, and only then between Congress and President Clinton. That muddied the message and it kept the balanced budget amendment off the table. America is still paying for that sin of omission.
Four, political scientists have found that blame sharing makes difficult legislation more palatable. True, we can well nigh guarantee that legislation that makes it through a 50-50 Senate will not be all that conservatives hope for. But that’s only half the battle until 2012. President Barack Obama would have a much harder time vetoing legislation that makes its way through a nominally Democratic Senate than he would a Republican one.
Five, Republicans don’t deserve to win. Under George W. Bush they presided over a federal government whose budget grew from $2 to $3 trillion annually. They got mired in scandal, launched one more war than they probably should have, began the bailout binge, and Osama bin Laden, that icon of the September 11 atrocities, avoided the grasp of the greatest military superpower the world has ever known.
Theirs was not a star performance. The only reason things have turned in the GOP’s favor of late is the even worse performance of the Democrats. Voters today are poised to express their displeasure with the Republicans’ opponents. They are not saying, “All is forgiven.” It would be useful for the next Congress to have a permanent reminder of that fact.