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Despite Their Losses Last Night, Republicans Have One Trick Left: Gridlock

There are two different systems that are at work in American politics. The first is the electoral system. It was on display last night, as Barack Obama won re-election, and the Democrats held onto the Senate and the Republicans the House. The second is the pressure system--a term used by the great political scientist E. E. Schattschneider to describe the competition between lobbies and political organizations to influence not just who wins elections, but what politicians do in office.

This election shows a continuing party realignment toward the Democrats, which began in the late 1990s, hit speed bumps after September 11 and again in 2010, but has resumed. But within the pressure system, through their alliance with business, the Republicans have been able to weaken or block Democratic initiatives, even if they were favored by electorate. The question for the next four years is whether Obama and the Democrats can use the clout they have acquired from their electoral success to overcome the power that Republicans exercise inside Washington and in Congress.

I call this relatively close election a continuation of party realignment precisely because Obama won under such adverse circumstances. The unemployment was higher than when he took office. By 54.1 to 40.6 percent Americans believed the country was on “the wrong track” rather than going in the “right direction.” Obama’s approval rating had finally hit 50 percent on October 28, but his disapproval was 45 percent. These kind of numbers, as Republican strategists repeatedly asserted, boded ill for the president’s re-election. In 1980, Ronald Reagan had rode the question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” to victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Democrats will end up keeping at least the same margin of 53-47 in the Senate (counting two independents as Democrats) even though they had to defend 23 of 33 seats. They won two-thirds of the Senate contests. Democrats did not retake the House, but as Republican conservatives learned during the conservative realignment that began in 1968, it is much more difficult to defeat House incumbents (and a few firebrand conservatives, like Joe Walsh and Allen West, lost). And the Democrats’ task has been made more difficult by Republican redistricting efforts after the 2010 election.

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One might argue that Obama’s victory was largely the result of the Republicans nominating a bad candidate, but Romney was, in fact, the class of the 2012 field. Obama would have done even better against any of the other presidential candidates. And Romney represented business interests that are an important part of the Republican coalition. Obama’s advantage lay in the Democrats’ coalition and what it stands for, while the Republicans’ disadvantage lay not merely in its nominee, but in its coalition and what it stands for.

While retaining some of the New Deal white working class in the North and far West, the Democrats have built a largely post-industrial coalition of blacks, Latinos, Asians, working women, professionals, and youth. Its outlook is socially liberal, egalitarian, and supportive of positive (as opposed to “big”) government. The Republicans are increasingly the party of the white evangelicals, white Southerners, nouveaux riches suburbanites, and narrow business interests opposed to government taxes and regulation. The Democratic coalition is growing; the Republican shrinking. Republicans can still win national elections, but only when a Democrat stumbles badly.

The pressure system, however,  looks very different. Think back to the pressure system at the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. There was enormous ferment on the left--from a growing industrial labor movement to Huey Long’s populism. Republicans were shell-shocked, and business was divided and discredited. In 2012, Obama and Democrats can command the loyalty of single interest groups on the environment, gay marriage and gun control. There are also some internet-based campaign groups. But the only group that can provide money and volunteers and that can battle for a comprehensive agenda between elections is the labor movement. And it is on the decline and on the defensive.  

By contrast, the Republican pressure system has, if anything, grown more powerful over the last two decades. It includes major business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business, political organizations like the Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, Freedomworks, and Americans for Prosperity, and a loose network of activist groups identified with the Tea Party or the religious right. Their power to raise money and wield influence has been enhanced by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

This Republican coalition operates during and between elections. Some of the groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads are most interested in creating Republican majorities and are not picky about the ideologies of their candidates. Rove’s group backed Republican Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana primary against challenger Richard Mourdock because it thought Lugar had a much better chance of retaining the Senate seat. But during Obama’s administration, the balance of power within the coalition has increasingly shifted to the Club for Growth, Freedomworks, Americans for Prosperity  and local Tea Party organizations that employ a different strategy.

These groups want to purge the Republican party of any hint of moderation. They want a party committed to dismantling the welfare state and removing government regulations and taxes on business. They oppose compromise with Democrats. In the Indiana election, they backed Mourdock, who attacked Lugar for being willing to work with Democrats. In August 2011, they urged Senate and House members to oppose raising the debt ceiling. They enjoy the support of much of the Republican grassroots and of wealthy donors, including the Koch brothers, investor John Childs, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel.  

In states and congressional districts where a Republican is expected to win, they have backed the most conservative candidates. But they have also punished Republicans like Lugar by backing primary challengers. That tactic cost the Republicans a chance to win back the Senate in 2010, and it cost them the Indiana seat this year, but it also has put the fear of retribution in elected Republicans who contemplate compromising with Democrats. It has increased the likelihood of gridlock in Washington.

What can Obama and the Democrats do to improve their chances of passing legislation?  They can hope for divisions between the less and most intransigent parts of the Republican coalition. They can encourage the growth of countervailing power of their own within the pressure system. And they can try to increase their own electoral majority to the extent that Republican officeholders fear more from the electorate than from conservatives lobbies in Washington.  If they don’t do that, they’ll find themselves robbed by the Republican-dominated pressure system of the fruits of their electoral victory.