Whether midterm elections that topple the governing party provide “mandates” for the new majority is another matter. The incoming party has every incentive to portray the results as not only a rebuke of the president, but also an indication of public support for its agenda.
This year, if Republicans capture one or both houses of Congress, they will undoubtedly argue that they have a warrant to pursue their policy goals: revisiting Obamacare and altering the stimulus policies. Yet, two leading electoral analysts, Norman Ornstein and Alan Abramowitz, recently cautioned the GOP against pressing its case too assertively. They argue that such tactics can backfire and cite the example of Gingrich in 1994 to make their point.
While Gingrich’s grandstanding may have helped Clinton win reelection in 1996, Republican majorities did force major changes in public policy. Of course, such changes only happened because Clinton was flexible enough—and found it in his interest—to play ball. If Republicans are victorious this fall, they may wish to gently remind Obama what he peremptorily told them after dismissing their complaints about the stimulus bill: “I won.”
In an age when so much attention is focused on the president, midterm elections spotlight the separation of powers. Congress doesn’t speak with the same unitary voice as the president, but a decisive outcome in congressional elections can still send a message loud and clear.
At a roundtable at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Andrew Busch and Jack Pitney discussed historical analogies. Video here.