(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.
“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.