Normally, one would expect a political party that suffered severe electoral disappointment — falling far short of typical midterm gains despite high inflation and consumer discontent — to moderate its positions, to seek compromise in order to achieve at least some of its policy goals.
But the modern GOP, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t a normal political party. It barely has policy goals, other than an almost reflexive desire to cut taxes on the rich and deny aid to those in need. It certainly doesn’t have policy ideas.
Republicans spent much of the election talking about inflation. But in a news conference just after securing a narrow majority in the House, top Republicans declared that their top priority would be … investigating the Biden family.
So the GOP won’t help govern America. It will, in fact, almost surely do what it can to undermine governance. And Democrats, in turn, need to do whatever they can both to thwart political sabotage and to make the would-be saboteurs pay a price.
Before I get to ways Democrats might do that, let’s talk about two reasons Republicans are likely to be even more destructive and irresponsible than they might have been if the red wave they confidently expected had come to pass.
First, the very narrowness of the Republican majority in the House means that the next speaker, probably Kevin McCarthy of California, will need support from every or nearly every member of his caucus (five races are still unresolved) — which will mean empowering extremists and election deniers. As one former GOP congressman put it, McCarthy may hold the title, but Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia may well be speaker in practice.
You might object by pointing out that Nancy Pelosi had only a narrow majority these past two years and nonetheless managed to unite moderates and progressives behind her policy agenda. But McCarthy is no Pelosi — and progressive Democrats are infinitely more serious and interested in getting things done than MAGA Republicans.
Second, the economic environment, which was a headwind for Democrats this year, will probably (although obviously not certainly) begin to look better heading into 2024 — prompting frantic efforts by Republicans to make things worse.
Specifically, inflation seems set to fall substantially, especially because a dramatic leveling off in market rental rates hasn’t yet filtered through to official price measures. And while a recession is possible next year, it will probably be mild if it happens — and over well before the next elections.
So for the next two years we can expect Republican leaders, such as they are, to wreak as much havoc as they can, both to appease their party’s most extreme elements and to undermine what might otherwise look like successful governance by the Biden administration.
Unfortunately, Republicans will in fact have major opportunities to wreak havoc — unless Democrats use the next few weeks, during which they will retain control of Congress, to forestall them. Two issues in particular stand out: the debt limit and aid to Ukraine.
For historical reasons, U.S. law in effect requires that Congress vote on the budget twice. First, it authorizes spending and sets tax rates; then, if that legislation leads to budget deficits, it must separately vote to authorize borrowing to cover those deficits.
It’s not clear why this ever made sense. In the current environment, it allows politicians who don’t have the votes to change policy through normal procedure to hold the economy for ransom, as Republicans did during the Obama years, or simply blow it up out of sheer spite — because failing to raise the debt limit would probably cause a global financial crisis. Does anyone expect the incoming GOP House to behave responsibly?
As for Ukraine, while the Ukrainians have been incredibly brave and remarkably successful in turning back the Russian invasion, they need a continuing inflow of Western aid, both military and economic, to continue the fight against their much larger neighbor. But it’s all too likely that a Republican Party that takes many of its cues from Tucker Carlson will try to block such aid.
The good news is that Democrats can, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent puts it, “crazy-proof” policy during the lame-duck session, raising the debt limit high enough that it won’t be a problem and locking in sufficient aid for Ukraine to get through the many months of war that surely lie ahead. And Democrats would be, well, crazy not to do these things as soon as possible.
Beyond that, Democrats can and should hammer Republicans for their extremism, for focusing on disruption and fake scandals rather than trying to improve Americans’ lives.
Savvy political pundits will no doubt mock such efforts. But these will be the same pundits who insisted that inflation would dominate the midterms and sneered at President Joe Biden for talking about the threat Republican extremists posed to democracy — which turned out to be an important election issue after all.
It’s a given that Republicans will behave badly over the next two years. But Democrats can both limit the damage and try to make bad actors pay a political price.