What's concretely at stake in the midterms
Republicans won't do anything on crime, but they will provoke crisis and try to cut Medicare
Of the many articles written about the upcoming midterm elections, shockingly1 few of them offer a concrete assessment of what’s actually at stake in the races.
For example, there’s plenty of coverage of campaigns’ statements about crime. And as regular readers know, I think that crime is a very important issue — I’m even substantively sympathetic to the GOP position on the issue and think that returning to the 1990s political dynamic where Republicans tried to elect moderates as big-city mayors could have a positive impact on public safety.
But electing a Republican senator from Arizona isn’t going to make Phoenix safer; if anything, it will make crime worse.
In general, I think the legislative difference between a narrowly Republican and a narrowly Democratic Senate would be very modest. Democrats are not queuing up any new reconciliation bills, and Republicans are almost certainly going to control the House anyway. But there is a world of difference between a 50-50 Senate and 51-49 GOP control when it comes to confirmations. If Democrats retain control of the Senate then the judiciary will continue to tilt right on balance, but it will drift back toward the center thanks to Biden's appointments to lower courts. If Republicans secure the majority, no new judges will get confirmed. This will overburden the courts as vacancies pile up, and we’ll see Democratic judges try to hold on despite age or illness reducing their effectiveness. Eventually, a new Republican administration will fill the vacancies and the balance of judicial power will shift further right.
There are also crucial implications for executive branch appointments. Republicans are threatening to create a new debt ceiling crisis. And a GOP-run Congress may provoke a certification crisis at the next presidential election. For the past couple of years, whatever else we fight about, we’ve had the luxury to count on the smooth and orderly operation of government. But despite not amounting to much policy-wise, a Republican Congress is going to mean more high-stakes showdowns and drama.
What people think is at stake
CBS News conducted a poll asking voters what they think the parties will do if they win. I like this both because it’s an unusual but interesting question, and also because this is a case where even if the point estimates are off by 5-6 points, the results are still illuminating.
Democrats have been very successful at convincing people that abortion rights is on the ballot. Realistically, passing national abortion rights legislation would require Democrats to defend all of their existing Senate seats, plus win in Pennsylvania and either Wisconsin, Ohio, or North Carolina. That strikes me as extremely unlikely, and even if they did, I’m not entirely sure they could get the job done. Pro-choice groups have been asking for a bill called the Women’s Health Protection Act that would “codify Roe” in the sense of moving back to the pre-Casey legal precedents. I think to get a majority, though, the bill would have to instead “codify Roe” in the sense of returning to the pre-Dobbs legal precedents2 that would allow the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws that pro-choice groups don’t like but that tend to poll well. And I’m still not certain Democrats would be able to pull off the cat-herding.
But it’s true that if they do well, Democrats will try to do something on abortion rights and possibly even succeed.
Democrats will definitely not “open the U.S.-Mexico border” if they retain control of Congress — almost all the frontline members urged Joe Biden to continue using a CDC public health pretext to expel asylum-seekers. I wish they would admit to themselves that this means they favor enacting changes to asylum law to reduce the number of people who come. And maybe they will. But they definitely will not be opening the borders. There is some chance of bipartisan action to create more legal pathways for agricultural workers, but the odds aren’t great, and I’m not sure partisan control of the Senate is an important consideration here — though control of the House does matter.
They won’t get the votes to increase Social Security benefits, but this is something most Democrats favor.
On the GOP side, obviously a national abortion ban won’t pass with Biden in office, but they might try. I’m concerned about overturning the 2024 election. I’m a little surprised by how many people think Joe Biden will be impeached — it certainly could happen, but I think the odds are against it. Increase U.S. energy production? I think the IRA already gave domestic energy production a boost, though the public doesn’t seem to know that. The Manchin permitting reform bill that Republicans blocked would have further increased American energy. They blocked it, I think, mostly out of spite and will probably reconsider that after the midterms, whether or not they are in the majority. I do think it’s fair to say the Biden administration made some anti-drilling calls in its first six months in office, but they were largely stymied in court and Biden has flip-flopped, so there’s really nothing for Republicans to do. Nobody believes me when I say this, but we are pumping oil at a faster rate than under Trump.
Republicans aren’t going to reduce crime
In the same poll, 53 percent of respondents predicted that Democrats would try to cut funding for police.
Back in the summer and fall of 2020, when Donald Trump was in the White House and Mitch McConnell was the Senate majority leader, homicides surged.
The cop-friendly version of the narrative is that police officers fear being hung out to dry by the media and opportunistic local politicians for no good reason, so they reduced their effort at proactive policing, and that increased crime.
The cop-skeptical version is that police officers got angry at the specter of public accountability and decided to teach everyone a lesson by staging a strike, so they reduced their effort at proactive policing, and that increased crime.
I’ve been involved in a number of tedious and bitter Twitter exchanges about whether we should characterize the situation as more (1) or (2), but for the sake of the midterms, the key point is that having Trump and McConnell in charge didn’t change it. In fact, crime surged in states with Republican governors and even in the rare cities (Jacksonville, Oklahoma City) that have Republican mayors.
I think the genuine difficulty of fixing this dynamic is underrated.
What police officers want is to not be subjected to unfair criticism in the press or by local politicians. And that’s a fair thing to want — I don’t like being subjected to unfair criticism, and I’m just here blogging away. At the same time, everyone is subject to all kinds of criticism, much of it unfair, and if Zoomer college students were making these complaints, the candidates putting up pro-cop yard signs in the Maryland exurbs would say the Zoomers were being ridiculous. Either way, this is not a federal issue, as Republicans themselves admit when they talk about 2020.
The federal government does provide money that helps bolster state and local law enforcement. Democrats fought for such money to be included in Covid-19 relief packages and Republicans blocked it. Then Democrats delivered a lot of money (too much money, I would say) in the American Rescue Plan, and Republicans criticized it. Rick Scott’s 12-point plan for America says that:
“The federal government must stop spending money on non-essential state and local projects until the budget is balanced.”
“We will balance the federal budget. It can be done. States do it all the time.”
“Enact term limits for the Washington ruling class – 12-year limits for Congress and government bureaucrats.”
I’m not saying a GOP Congress would in fact enact drastic cuts in funding to state and local police, require all veteran FBI/DEA/Border Patrol/ICE/etc. agents to resign, or otherwise implement these ideas. But in concrete terms, this is the direction Republican policy ideas point. They don’t like government spending and they don’t like taxes, but they do like balanced budgets. When you try to enact an all-cuts approach to balancing the budget, law enforcement gets squeezed.
The other thing the federal government does is regulate guns, and here we know the GOP both opposes stricter gun rules and also tighter ATF enforcement of rules that exist.
In other words, on balance, electing “tough on crime” Republicans will likely make crime worse.
The debt ceiling
The fraught relationship between Donald Trump, the Republican Party, Social Security & Medicare, and election outcomes is, I think, one of the most underrated aspects of the last decade of American politics.
Here are some things that are true:
The Romney/Ryan plan to privatize Medicare was very unpopular, and if Republicans hadn’t run on that, they very well might have beaten Obama.
The whole reason the post-2012 GOP autopsy report recommended moderating on immigration was to avoid the obvious alternative strategy of moderating on Social Security and Medicare.
A big part of the elite GOP resistance to Trump was that he was pushing the party to moderate on Social Security and Medicare when they really didn’t want to do this — recall that Paul Ryan continued to push Medicare privatization after Trump won, only to be eventually smacked down by the president.
Trump himself only cares about people’s loyalty to Trump, and lots of the candidates he is promoting are in fact orthodox Republicans committed to cutting Social Security and Medicare.
So the idea that Republicans — ranging from the Republican Study Committee in the House to Mitch McConnell — have latched onto is that instead of enacting a Ryan-style partisan agenda, they should use the statutory debt ceiling as leverage to force Joe Biden to enact it on a bipartisan basis.
I think this is, first and foremost, a stupid plan.
Republicans could try to do bipartisan entitlement reform by agreeing to the thing that moderate Democrats have always demanded — a balanced plan that includes tax increases — or else they can try to win an election and do their own plan on a party-line basis. The idea that you could coerce Democrats into endorsing a cuts-only plan that both violates their core principles and is also toxically unpopular is stupid. At my son’s elementary school, they say you shouldn’t call people stupid — it’s taboo enough that the kids refer to it as “the s-word” — but this is a stupid plan. Not because the architects of the plan are stupid, but because it reflects an intellectually lazy effort to avoid addressing internal contradictions in the current GOP coalition.
I don’t know what will happen exactly, but the crisis or standoff will be at least somewhat economically damaging, and it won’t end with cuts-only entitlement reform.
Now back in 2013, I was actually glad that Republicans rejected Obama’s proposal to try a balanced plan since I thought the economic circumstances weren’t appropriate for deficit reduction. Today things are different, and deficit reduction would be a good idea. I wish the White House had taken my suggestion to do a bipartisan commission on this back in August when their political fortunes were riding higher. But the GOP approach is going to lead to dysfunction, not to a smart bipartisan deal.
A very dysfunctional government
The basic dynamics of 2022 are that voters are angry about inflation but worried about all these kooky GOP candidates and the party’s flirtations with insurrectionism and procedural extremism.
A balanced deficit reduction package could help with inflation, but that’s not what Republicans are proposing — and it can be done no matter who controls Congress.
By contrast, only a Democratic Senate can conduct the routine confirmation process that the government needs. Senate Republicans’ sheer ability to chew up calendar time has already been a significant impediment to staffing the government. The ambassador to Brazil, for example, is a position that is going unfilled not because Elizabeth Bagley lacks the votes but because the job isn’t considered important enough to be wasting floor time on given GOP objections. Why do they object to her? Because in a 1998 interview she opposed moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, adhering to the same view as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
With a 50-50 Senate, Democrats can — when they want to — force votes on nominees whose jobs they think are important enough. If Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, and Dr. Oz join the Senate, that’s over.
What’s more, if Walker, Masters, and Oz don’t join the Senate, then everyone is going to say “I can’t believe Republicans did so badly with this inflation happening — they probably shouldn’t have nominated all these kooks and charlatans.” And next time around, they will nominate better candidates, which would be good. But if a bunch of kooks and charlatans win, the dominant interpretation will be that it’s totally fine to nominate kooks and charlatans selected for nothing other than personal loyalty to Donald Trump or lib-owning potential. That, like a debt ceiling crisis or constant paralysis of the executive branch, is bad.
So I would take the current polling seriously. If you’re hoping Democrats will make huge gains and enact sweeping progressive legislation — you’re out of luck. If you’re fearful that Democrats will make huge gains and enact sweeping progressive legislation — I’ve got good news. If you’re worried about crime — Republicans aren’t going to help you no matter how well they do, and they may well make things worse by making it harder to enforce federal gun laws. But if you’d like the government to continue functioning normally and want to avoid an effort to balance the budget entirely on the backs of middle-class retirees, then you should try at the margin to help Democrats win.
But not surprisingly. It’s important to retain the ability to be shocked by things that aren’t surprising.
Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have a bill that would do this, which would give moderate Democrats the bipartisan cover they like.