Saturday, 18 October 2008

Senate: looking ahead & party balance

The Democratic pickup in the Senate is looking bigger than first expected, but Republicans need not be too glum long term. If they return to more traditional conservative values, stop alienating moderates, and act honestly as a minority party, they will make a comeback. Otherwise another party WILL step in to fill in the void.

We face so many huge challenges and problems currently. Have we come to the end of American Exceptionalism? Will we enter a worldwide depression? Will climate change overtake the planet disastrously? Doing our level best to answer all of these questions in the negative should be our focus.

Nonetheless, some people worry about one-party rule. The structure of our politics pretty much guarantees that some form of opposition will gain traction, so I believe such concerns are overblown. The Republicans just a few years back thought that they had an opportunity to establish a permanent majority. I confess that I was worried that Bush's willingness to ignore the Constitution might lead to real disenfranchisement of any opposition, and set the stage for something close to a coup. But the pendulum is swinging, and appears to be swinging pretty hard right now.

Which brings me back to Congress. Let's assume for the moment that Obama will win - not a guarantee but a likelihood. What will it mean for our nation if the Democrats are virtually filibuster proof in the Senate, and significantly extend their lead in the House? Many conservatives are genuinely worried that "the liberals will go wild", and more and more you hear talk from the right about impending "socialism". We liberals are entertaining some hopes that finally some actually liberal policy positions can be given the chance that they have been denied since Reagan's ascendancy.

To those who fear balance will be lost, consider that balance takes various forms. The obvious Party balance between executive and legislative branches, or between the two houses of Congress are not likely to be present for the next four years. But there still is a time balance in play.

It is not necessarily best that divided government be the order of the day for all times. Periods of time with one party or the other in both elected branches do present the opportunity to actually implement plans that otherwise face gridlock. Our democratic process for replacing politicians means that even when one party has both Congress and the Presidency, some caution needs to be exercised if those positions are to be maintained.

There is also ideological balance within parties. In order to win seats, the Democrats have run increasingly conservative candidates in known conservative districts and states. A truly socialist agenda is not likely when so many Democrats in the Senate are far more conservative than moderate and liberal Republicans of 30 or 40 years ago. And in the House, disaffection with the ruling party can change the majority in fairly short order, with every position standing for re-election every two years.

Because of six year terms, it is easier to look further ahead in the Senate, to possible party changes. Let's look at this election, that of 2010, and that of 2012, and even 2014, to see what we can anticipate.

This year the Democrats WILL expand their lead, and this was virtually guaranteed already when the current class of Senators was elected in 2002, an extraordinarily good year for Republicans. With the current economic crisis, and sullying of the Republican name brand, the extent of Democratic expansion has changed from 4-6 seats, to more likely 7-8 seats, and an outside chance of as many as 11, if Chambliss of Georgia, McConnell of Kentucky, and Wicker of Mississippi were all to be defeated.

In 2010, the party affiliation of Senators whose terms are up for re-election is more evenly divided, with similar numbers in safe vs non-safe seats for both parties. Depending on what happens between now and then, either party could pickup a few seats on up to a maximum of 8 or 9, though I would guess the net change to be 2 or less.

In 2012, the Republicans will almost certainly pick up multiple seats. Depending on outcomes this year and two years from now, this is their next realistic opportunity to pick up a majority. Given the likely larger than expected Democratic win in this election, 2014 will be yet another election in which Republicans should again make gains in the Senate. Again contingent upon their ability to return to more traditional conservative values, while avoiding alienating moderates, Republicans have a very high likelihood of becoming the majority party in the Senate by 2014.

My crystal ball pretty much ends there, as so much depends on intervening events which cannot be foretold.

Logically, the Senate is the body which is most likely to be Republican, since the less populated states of the Plains and Intermountain West, tend to be more conservative, while the House with heavier urban representation, should logically be easier for the Democrats to retain.

The importance of time balance, especially in the House has been hammered home with the corruption of the Democratic reign of some 40 years up to the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and the subsequent corruption of Republicans developed over their 12 year reign from 1995 to 2006. If we can get redistricting reform enacted which reduces gerrymandering and the creation of safe seats, that would greatly reduce the likelihood that either party could retain control in the house in such long runs that corruption perverts the process as much as has happened in recent times. Iowa has set the standard for redistricting reform, and other states should follow suit. Look to Maryland(D), Florida(R), and Texas(D then R) as gross examples of partisan gerrymandering gone bananas, though it can be found in most states to one degree or another.

As I hinted in my opening, it is still possible that the Republican Party implodes and can't agree on its fundamental principles, losing its grip on enough of the electorate that it really does relegate itself to obsolescence. I think that is unlikely, since it is in a better position than any other party to right its ship and remain the dominant second party in America. The Democratic Party in spite of its recent successes is also at risk if it remains stodgily dependent on constituencies that are taken for granted, and doesn't demonstrate more political agility than it sometimes does. Should either party truly stumble though, other parties will surely enter the vacuum created, and opposition politics will remain in place for years to come. Personally I would be delighted to see another party replace the Republicans as the second dominant party, but I'm surely not holding my breath for that day. Rs and Ds are likely to remain the tags we see next to candidates' names on the ballots for many election cycles to come.

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