USA politics: Democrats set for mid-term losses

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FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The Democratic Party is braced for a painful setback when American voters go to the polls in mid-term elections on November 2nd. The Republican Party has successfully exploited voters’ concerns about the economy and obstructed the administration’s legislative agenda. The opposition’s relentless attacks on the Obama government’s signature policies—combined with the unexpected rise of the far-right Tea Party movement—have further undermined the Democrats’ mid-term prospects. The Economist Intelligence Unit thinks the Democrats will lose control of the House, but they should just hold on to the Senate.

The political tide appears to have turned sharply against the Democrats, due in part to aggressive Republican campaigning on a small-government, low-tax platform as well as to the perceived failure of the Obama administration, despite large congressional majorities, to prevent the Republicans from severely impeding its agenda. As a result, many left-leaning Democrats seem disappointed with what the administration has achieved, while compromises over policies such as healthcare and financial regulatory reform have not assuaged the more fundamental concerns of Republicans and some moderate Democrats. President Obama, in short, has neither met the expectations of his core support base nor achieved the bipartisan co-operation to which he aspired during the presidential campaign. The possibility of a lower turn-out of young voters than in the 2008 elections (mid-terms, in any case, tend to have a lower turn-out than in presidential election years) also poses a threat to the Democrats’ chances on November 2nd.

As a result, the main question seems to be how big the Democrats’ election losses will be. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives (the lower house) are being contested, as well as 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate (the upper house). (Besides the normal 34 Senate seats where incumbents’ six-year terms are expiring, special elections are being held for seats in Delaware, New York and West Virginia.) In addition, voters in 37 states will elect governors. Judging by opinion polls, the Republicans are set to gain control of the House, where the Democrats currently command a 39-seat majority. Republican control of the Senate is less assured. The Democrats currently control 59 of the 100 Senate seats, including two independents who usually vote with them. In other words, the Republicans will need to gain 10 seats to reach a majority, which, in practice, means winning every one of the remotely competitive seats up for re-election, without losing any of their own.

Even if only the House changed control, the election would dramatically reshape the US political landscape. Mr Obama could no longer rely on the Democratic leadership to push through his legislative programme. At the same time, the leadership in each chamber would need to take into account the views of the majority party in the other to have any hope of implementing its agenda. Even if the Republicans triumphed in both houses of Congress, they would by no means have carte blanche. A radically conservative agenda would alienate moderate members of the party, and Mr Obama could use his veto power to block legislation. Given the partisan rancour of recent years on Capitol Hill, expectations are low that the two parties will find common ground on such issues as fiscal discipline, immigration reform and energy legislation. But with neither party able to push through its agenda without support from at least some of its opponents, there would be a strong incentive for compromise and co-operation. Optimists point to the precedent set in the mid-1990s when the then president, Bill Clinton, and a Republican-controlled Congress worked together in an unexpectedly productive way.

The era of the Angry Party

The US’s deep economic malaise has helped spawn an unusual degree of anger on the hustings during the mid-term election campaign, exacerbating the polarisation that has been a growing feature of the political scene in recent years. On the conservative side, the disaffection is epitomised by the Tea Party, a loose alliance of groups and individuals embittered by what they perceive as the government’s profligate spending and its increased presence in the economy. The greatest bugbear of the Tea Party has been the healthcare reforms passed by Congress earlier this year. Tea Party supporters, often with the former vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, in their vanguard, have mounted especially vitriolic attacks against Mr Obama and the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The movement’s candidates have successfully fought several high-profile primaries, and are likely to have a significant representation in the new Congress. That said, the presence of Tea Party candidates could damage the Republicans’ chances in some races, as their extreme views may put off voters who would otherwise have supported more sober-minded Republicans.

The relationship between Tea Party lawmakers and the Republican establishment will play a key role in determining the party’s effectiveness in the next Congress. If the party leadership chooses to placate its ultra-conservative wing, a more hard-line and uncompromising stance can be expected against gay rights, immigration reforms and tax increases. Meanwhile, Democrats have also increasingly questioned their leadership’s effectiveness as their party’s popularity has ebbed. They have become especially critical of Ms Pelosi, who has come under growing fire for her activist liberal agenda. Her position within the party will undoubtedly be weakened if the Democrats lose control of the House on November 2nd.