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The Battle for Congress | The Nation

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The Battle for Congress

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(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The presidency is not enough.

If the polling from battleground states is to be believed, President Obama’s re-election chances are now better than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated just a few months ago. Yet this year’s campaign is about a lot more than an increasingly confident Barack Obama versus a bumbling Mitt Romney. Races for control of the House and Senate will determine the character of the next presidency—no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Rand Paul and Barbara Lee are right: “The Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force.”

“Even if you’re focused on getting the president re-elected, you can’t take your eyes off the congressional races; not if you’re serious about what happens after the election,” says Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison. “If Obama wins but gets a Republican House and Senate, which is possible, he could be less able to govern than he is now, with a divided Congress.” Indeed, argues Michael Lighty, public policy director for National Nurses United, a GOP Congress could pressure Obama to accept destructive “reforms” of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “It’s not as if the Republicans would respect the fact that Obama’s been re-elected and suddenly become supportive,” says Lighty. “They’d push even harder.”

That’s right. Progressives who want Obama to move left in a second term have to recognize that this will never happen if Congress moves right. Is the best we can hope for more of the same—an Obama administration with a narrowly Democratic Senate and a Republican House bent on thwarting the president for the next two years? Or might the shifting electoral dynamics give us the more genuinely progressive Congress that’s needed to prod Obama in a bolder direction during debates about entitlement programs and implementation of the Affordable Care Act? And what are the chances for reforms that have gained little traction in a dysfunctional Washington, like a financial transactions tax, or amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United? Is it possible to get a Congress that would actually lead a cautious Democratic president to the left?

That prospect was nearly unimaginable at the start of the 2012 election cycle,w when Democrats were still reeling from the 2010 tsunami that shifted control of the House to Republicans and weakened the hand of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his caucus.

The fact that most of the senators now up for re-election are Democrats, and that many of them represent swing states that tipped Democratic in the progressive wave of 2006, had many observers at the start of the current cycle writing off Democratic prospects even for retaining their narrow 53-47 majority. The post–Citizens United money machine of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers made that task even more daunting. But the hubris of a GOP that nominated as its vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan—Congress’s most prominent proponent of assaults on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—combined with the energetic grassroots campaigns of progressives in unexpected districts and states, has given Democrats a real shot at retaining their advantage in the Senate. They’ve gotten breaks no one expected. Savvy analysts were writing political obituaries for Senator Claire McCaskill, who seemed unlikely to retain her seat in a Missouri that’s been trending rightward. Then came Todd Akin. The GOP candidate’s “legitimate rape” talk didn’t just move that race from “likely R” to “likely D”; it boosted Democratic contenders like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, who were suddenly able to remind voters that—even if their Republican foes made moderate noises—the GOP establishment (including Paul Ryan) is so obsessed with denying women the right to choose that it would narrow the definition of rape.

Even with Rove and his allies steering money originally intended for the presidential race into Senate races, it’s no longer beyond the realm of possibility that the Romney campaign, which former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has dubbed a “rolling calamity,” could crash. That prospect has Democrats talking about grabbing seats from Republicans like Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Elizabeth Warren’s challenge to Brown, which has excited progressives who came to know her as the nation’s leading advocate for financial services reforms, was slow to take off. Through the summer she trailed him in the polls. But after she delivered a dose of economic populism at the Democratic National Convention and after Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of Americans as a dependent class—which effectively confirmed the need for that populism—Warren opened a lead in most polls.

The House is a tougher nut to crack for Democrats. They need a net gain of twenty-five seats to regain control, and at least some of those seats will have to be won in states where Republican governors and legislators gamed the post-2010 redistricting process. But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi argues that the chamber can be retaken, declaring that, with the Ryan pick, “Medicare is on the ballot” in every race. Pelosi is onto something. Despite the best efforts of the Romney/Ryan ticket to confuse the debate with false claims regarding the funding of the Affordable Care Act as it relates to Medicare, the Democratic pledge to defend the program appears to be working as a core theme in the most competitive House races.

In northern Wisconsin, where he is mounting an energetic challenge to freshman Republican Sean Duffy, Democrat Pat Kreitlow is focused like a laser on preserving Social Security and Medicare—not just for those already receiving benefits but, as Kreitlow says, for “the coming generation.” Like other smart Democratic challengers, he knows that preserving the safety net doesn’t just appeal to the elderly. “People in their 30s and 40s are worried about how they’re going to get by when they retire,” says Kreitlow, who notes that tough economic times have made it harder for young families to bank retirement savings. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its allies have begun to exploit that with ads pointing out the support that vulnerable GOP incumbents have given to Ryan’s austerity agenda. (Needless to say, Ryan’s scrappy challenger, Rob Zerban, has had a field day with the issue as he asks Wisconsin voters to reject the vice presidential nominee—who is also seeking to retain his House seat—twice in this election.)

Democrats have also started linking their candidates with a president whose approval ratings and poll numbers have surged after a successful convention and a series of bizarre missteps by Romney. A new “Have Obama’s Back” campaign is promoting straight-ticket voting by minorities and the young with the message: “For the president to succeed, we also need to elect Democrats who will stand with him.”

That’s a classic campaign argument, and if Obama’s on a roll come November 6, it could help swing some House seats. But after the election, when the fight over “fiscal cliff” budget cuts begins, what will be needed most are stalwarts in Congress who will check and balance not just Republicans, but any tendency toward regressive compromise by the White House and congressional leaders. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent who caucuses with Democrats, is on track to win re-election by a margin that will confirm the popular appeal of an anti-austerity message. But he has been blunt about his concern that a re-elected Obama might accept a “grand bargain” that cuts entitlement programs. “I do not believe that we should cut Social Security,” Sanders said in a July Senate speech. “I would like to know, and I think the American people would like to know, if President Obama feels the same way. It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch.” Along with twenty-eight other senators, he pressed the point in September in a letter opposing any such cuts as part of a deal.

One of the best ways to establish a bulwark against compromise is by electing members of Congress who are as committed as Sanders. Some Democratic newcomers are sending the right signals. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, Joyce Beatty says, ”I will stand up to anyone who attempts to cut funding to Medicare and Social Security.” That’s the clarity we need from Congress, no matter who wins the presidency.

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