When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many Republicans went berserk. The governor of Texas began talking about seceding from the Union, religious conservatives literally saw the new president as the Antichrist and decided Armageddon was around the corner, and people even started listening to Glenn Beck. Now, faced with the likelihood of a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives (and the small but real possibility of the Senate turning Republican as well), Democrats have to decide just how freaked out to be.
There's a lot to be concerned about, and it would be naive to say that having Republicans back in possession of a house or two won't bring some very bad things. But we shouldn't get too carried away. This too shall pass.
This is probably not the prevailing opinion on the left, even among those not normally inclined toward panic. "This is going to be terrible," Paul Krugman wrote last week. "In fact, future historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America, one that condemned the nation to years of political chaos and economic weakness." He could be right, but there are some reasons to believe that the damage will be limited.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not among those who believe that having a Republican Congress is just what the doctor ordered for Obama's political fortunes. It may prove politically useful for the administration to have a foil, and when Americans get to know John Boehner and the gang, they're not likely to be particularly impressed. What matters most are results, and with such an oppositional opposition, there won't be much in the way of results coming from Congress.
There's a difference, however, between getting less of what you want through Congress and getting an avalanche of conservative legislation -- something Republicans will be unable to make happen. It's not that they won't be able to do some meaningful harm, but the harm they do will be mostly negative in nature. In other words, they will be able to stop the Obama administration from doing some of the things it wants to do, but they won't be moving the Republican agenda forward.
Take Social Security privatization, a longtime conservative goal that over 100 current Republican members of Congress support. After he got re-elected, George W. Bush tried a privatization scheme with the help of a Republican House and Senate, but it was so unpopular it died before ever coming to a vote. Republicans in the next House could try again, but they probably won't -- and even if they did, they probably couldn't pass it; and even if they did, it would die in the Senate; and even if it didn't, Obama would veto it. That's going to be the pattern on almost all their big goals, like repealing health-care reform or making major cuts to government programs. They have too many high fences to leap over to get any really dangerous legislation passed.
Nevertheless, Republicans could make some headway if they can convince the Democrats to cower in fear, which is a real possibility. It's an even stronger possibility if, as has been rumored, Nancy Pelosi retires if she doesn't retain the speakership. The reason I say that is that there is no Democrat in Washington these days with Pelosi's fortitude. You may recall that after Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts earlier this year, many Democrats waved their hands in front of their faces and headed straight for the fainting couch. Rahm Emanuel wanted to abandon the health-care bill, which had already passed both houses, and instead chop it up into little palatable pieces that they would then attempt to pass. Pelosi essentially told everyone to stop acting like a bunch of little wimps and that she was forging ahead. The result was passage of the most important social legislation in decades. The next Democratic leader may not be as capable of stiffening the caucus' spines and cracking skulls when necessary.
And if Democrats lose the House, there will be a lot of people telling them to tack right, because they "overreached." Some may not have the guts -- or the understanding of recent political history -- to resist, but we can hope most will. The central conflict of the next Congress will be as much within the GOP as between the GOP and the president. The Tea Party candidates will come to Washington convinced that their extreme views and resistance to ever compromising on anything was what got them elected, and they'll be pushing their leaders to let them undertake a variety of unpopular measures.
Those measures might well include impeaching President Obama. It won't be surprising if some Republican, and perhaps even a group of them, introduces an impeachment resolution within the first few of months of the 112th Congress. After all, 18 Republicans filed an impeachment resolution in the House in November 1997 -- two months before the name "Monica Lewinsky" appeared in any newspaper. And this Republican caucus will be even more conservative than that one was.
But when a group of Tea Partiers starts talking impeachment, the cooler heads of the GOP leadership will probably tell them to put a sock in it. They'll say that not because of a high-minded belief that it is insane to impeach a president just because he's from the other party and is therefore pursuing policies with which you disagree but because of a simple political calculation. As they learned in 1998, there's only so much kamikaze partisanship the public will tolerate, and an impeachment would be just as disastrous for them now as it was then.
If Republicans take the House, there's also a good chance they'll lose it right back in 2012. If they do win the House, it will be by a small margin. And in 2012, they'll probably suffer significant losses. First of all, provided the economy looks better in two years than it does today, chances are that President Obama is going to romp to re-election -- like Ronald Reagan did in 1984 after suffering losses in 1982, and like Bill Clinton did in 1996 after suffering losses in 1994 -- and if he does, there will be some coattails in congressional races. Second, the Republican class of 2010 is going to include a lot of inexperienced, inept, and just plain crazy people who are going to be vulnerable to challenge when they have to run in a year not characterized by 9.6 percent unemployment and a general mood of rage.
Nothing is certain in politics, and the next two years could turn into a nightmare. But it's more likely it'll be mildly unpleasant, not catastrophic. The country will survive, just as it has survived before. And before you know it, the pendulum will swing back.