In this space a couple of weeks ago I made the argument that partisan and ideological gridlock was feeding on itself by creating an insatiable craving for the occasional Big Election with big consequences. What didn’t fully occur to me is that the next Big Election might be the one just ahead, in 2016.
No, it’s extremely unlikely that 2016 will produce the kind of temporary governing capacity for either party that Democrats won in 2008, with a big majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (for a year, at least, until the disaster of Scott Brown’s special election victory in January 2010). But a rapidly escalating series of Republican post-election promises that do not require a landslide are making this a “high-stakes election” nonetheless.
Most notably, Republican proto-presidential candidates are tripping over each other to promise to revoke Obama’s executive orders and regulations. This threatens to become a counterrevolutionary executive agenda that goes beyond high-profile items like immunity for prosecution for immigration violations and utility carbon emissions regulations and extend deep into everything Democrats were able to accomplish since 2009. It’s just a matter of time until a competition breaks out that culminates with demands and promises to repeal everything Obama ordered, including regulations needed to implement everything Congress passed since 2009. That’s obviously a pretty big deal.
A second major “high stakes” area involves the president’s power to use military force. In 2012 Republicans accused Barack Obama of weak leadership and predicted threats to American interests ranging from Palestine to Iraq to Russia to North Korea, with a particular emphasis on Iran. This time around Republicans both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail are describing these threats as imminent, and advocating what amounts to a re-invasion of Iraq to deal with Islamic State and an ultimatum to Iran to abandon its entire nuclear program immediately or face U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. That’s aside from the equally radical but less immediately dire course of action the GOP is advocating with respect to Israeli-Palestinian relations (an abandonment of any two-state solution), and its treatment of the current Israeli government (which as of last night appeared likely to continue in power for the next four years) as the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy.
More generally, what looked as recently as a couple of years ago like a burgeoning intra-GOP debate over “non-interventionism” as a corollary of limited government conservatism has collapsed, and even Rand Paul is joining his party colleagues in trying to sabotage a nuclear deal with Iran at the risk of war, and rejecting any obligation to fulfill diplomatic commitments made by Obama. The fork in the road in November of 2016 appears as stark for foreign policy as it does for executive action on domestic policy.
A third “high stakes” area is legislative, and involves the strong possibility that Republicans will, if they control the White House and both chambers of Congress, use the budget reconciliation process to kill or at least disable the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, boost defense spending, and radically “reform” entitlements—all in one bill that requires only majority votes in each House. There were reportedly plans in the works to do all that back in 2012, in a blitzkrieg action planned for early in 2013, had Mitt Romney won and Republicans reclaimed the Senate that year.
You could take any of these three areas of “high stakes” and invert the language to see how Republicans tend to view the coming election: If Democrats keep the White House, and particularly if they reclaim the Senate (a real possibility), Obama’s agenda of executive action on immigration and climate change will be solidified and extended; his weak and reckless foreign policy will “embolden” IS, Hamas, Russia, and various domestic terrorists; and the economic recovery will drown as high taxes, debt worries, red tape and class warfare discourage growth and innovation.
And both parties undoubtedly agree a deeply divided Supreme Court is an appointment or two away from a decisive conservative or liberal majority as challenges to Roe v. Wade, the Affordable Care Act, the Voting Rights Act, and perhaps even (if the wind blows strongly Democratic) Citizens United, all come to potential fruition. It’s likely that by 2017, legal challenges to net neutrality and electronic surveillance will also be making their way towards the Court.
There’s no telling what the next year of frenetic campaigning, especially in the GOP presidential nominating process, will add to the 2017 agenda of action to make or remake history. But at present, there are already enough crucial matters of war and peace, prosperity and austerity, and equality and freedom, to make this a Big Election, even if the choice between, say, Hillary Clinton and Scott Walker as president were not choice enough.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.