This week, a survey from Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll came out that should have received more notice than it did. In many ways, it found what you would expect: Voters said the coronavirus was the most important issue in the election, followed by the economy and jobs. Most people, despite President Trump’s claims, believe Joe Biden won the election fairly.
And then there was this: A majority of voters would prefer divided government. With Biden in the White House, they want to see a Republican Senate. Really.
Control of the Senate rests on the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. If the Democratic candidates — the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — can win both, the Democrats will gain the Senate majority. If Republicans win just one, they remain in control.
This would be a disastrous outcome. It would almost certainly result in a slower, more painful recovery from the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. It would also make it all but certain that Biden would be forced to turn to executive orders to get almost any part of his agenda accomplished, which means broader, systemic changes — a public option for health care, free tuition for community college students or an increase in the national minimum wage, which is still set at the poverty-level sum of $7.25 an hour— will not happen.
As a writer who focuses on personal finance, I often talk to people who don’t think about politics all day long or who haven’t spent the past four years addicted to MSNBC, CNN or Fox News. The sentiment I hear all too often is “why can’t the two sides get along?”
People want to see results in Washington, and many believe it is dogmatic pols of both sides that are stopping it. But that’s not the issue. The problem is that one party — the Republican Party — does not want to share power. It’s transformed itself into an obstructionist force with little interest in compromise. This is why we’re struggling to make our way through a third wave of the covid-19 pandemic on the fumes of financial aid that is set to expire within weeks.
Instead of firmly and repeatedly pointing this out, Biden has played to what I’ve called fantasy politics for Democratic moderates. He’s claimed, for instance, that Republicans would experience an “epiphany” and work with him once they voted Trump out of the picture. The result was a tacit endorsement of ticket-splitting — something that helped give Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) another term in the Senate, and likely cost Democrats a few seats in the House.
As Annie Lowrey recounted recently at the Atlantic, divided government that resulted from the 2010 election meant that just about every proposal from Democrats to juice the stumbling economy ended in defeat. Republicans, she noted, “crushed every attempt to rectify the problem.” Voters, as we know, ultimately rewarded them for their obstructionism. They didn’t want to know how the sausage was made. They just wanted results. And, if they didn’t get them, well, the buck stops at the White House. Enter Donald Trump.
A Senate where Mitch McConnell (Ky.) remains majority leader promises a repeat performance. Republicans are not exactly hiding their intentions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is attempting to move still-unspent money made available under the Cares Act to a fund that future Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen will need congressional assent to access. Senators who voted happily for Trump’s budget-busting tax-reform plan that showered goodies on the wealthy are suddenly remembering the deficit when discussing assistance for those whose financial lives are imploding because of covid-19 shutdowns. Republican operative Mike Davis recently proclaimed Biden’s immigration reform dead on arrival — destined for the “Senate graveyard” next to Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination.
But, again, most voters aren’t spending their days steeped in this sort of political detail. They just want to see Washington work. They fall for the bipartisan schtick and then blame Democrats — the one party that’s actually trying to do the right thing and maintain it — when it doesn’t. As a result, it’s up to Democrats to make the stakes clear. If they can’t or won’t impress upon voters that Republican cooperation is a thing of the far distant past, it’s quite possible we will once again learn that lesson the hard way.