One feature that Chuck Todd has brought to “Meet the Press” as its new host is a recurring segment called “What everyone in Washington knows but is afraid to say.” By “everyone in Washington” they mean “people who work in politics and the media." And by “afraid to say” they mean “said quite often and without hesitancy by many, many people.” But that’s all beside the point, which is to create the impression that Todd et. al. are divulging secrets of the political elite while staying comfortably within the bounds of conventional wisdom.
To wit: this past weekend’s segment was framed around the idea that the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee (presumed to be Hillary Clinton) would strongly prefer that the Democrats lose control of the Senate this year. “Secretly," Todd said, “I’m convinced, I think we know this, Hillary Clinton would love to see the Senate in Republican hands.”
As Erik Wemple observed, the idea that losing the Senate in 2014 would be good for the Democrats in 2016 is thesis that many people “in Washington” have argued in opinion pieces and reported analysis. It is, to draw on the parlance of the day, a Hot Take.
Also, the surety with which they assert Hillary Clinton’s preference for a Republican-controlled Senate is belied by the fact that the Clintons are out on the campaign trail and raising money for Democratic Senate candidates. Maybe that’s all just one big head-fake. Those Clintons are crafty ones, after all.
But the question remains: are there actually Democrats who secretly hope they’ll lose in November? I can’t say for sure, but anyone who does put faith in this complicated bit of political jiu-jitsu is a damn fool.
Let’s start with the alleged benefits (for the Democrats) of a GOP controlled Senate in 2015. If the Republicans have control of both Houses of Congress, then the Democrats can just run against them in 2016 and not have to talk about Barack Obama all the time. As Politico’s Jim VandeHei put it on “Meet the Press”: “Democrats, Hillary Clinton in particular, would love Republicans – Marco Rubio, Rand Paul – to actually have to take ownership of some of the dysfunction.”
It’s true that dysfunction would rule the day in a Republican-dominated Congress. John Boehner has shown that he can’t control his own caucus and often finds himself in power struggles with Ted Cruz. Mitch McConnell, assuming he becomes majority leader, will also be struggling to deal with Cruz and more unruly portions of his newly empowered majority. There are some people who seem to think that the solemn responsibility of power will impel the Senate GOP to become more responsible partners in governing, but that’s clearly not going to happen. McConnell’s already said that his vision for governing is to return to the series of self-made crises that were the hallmark of the first two years of Republican control of the House after the Tea Party wave. He wants to force Obama to roll back his own agenda, which means we’re going to have showdown after showdown and more brinkmanship.
The Democrats could run against that, I suppose, but there’s a price to be paid and it hardly seems worth paying. The Senate Republicans won’t be able to govern competently, but one thing they can do very easily is completely shut down the process for judicial confirmations and nominations to the executive branch. As TPM’s Sahil Kapur explained, changes to the filibuster rules helped the Democrats confirm a large number of Obama nominees that the Republicans had stalled, but there are still 155 nominations pending. If the Republicans take control, they’ll either keep those nominees permanently in limbo, or use them as hostages to force concessions from the White House.
Judicial nominations are lifetime appointments and will affect policy for decades to come. And when one starts thinking in terms of Supreme Court vacancies, which could happen at any moment, the stakes become clear.
There’s also the threat posed by engineering crisis after crisis, as McConnell has promised. The Republican Senate majority would go into 2015 well aware that their grip on power could be very short-lived. The 2016 Senate map is absolutely awful for the GOP. They’ll have 24 seats to defend (compared to 10 for the Democrats), seven of which will be in states Obama won in 2012. Plus it will be a presidential election year, which means the Democratic base will be less apt to perform the vanishing act they do during midterm years. The Republicans will want to move quickly to attack the Affordable Care Act and other pillars of Obama’s legacy, and since they won’t be able to accomplish that through the normal legislative process, they’ll have to engineer showdowns with the White House. There’s a very good chance we could return to the ugliness of the debt ceiling fights and the fiscal cliff, when the basic credibility and functionality of the U.S. government were called into question.
Also, the presumption of a Democratic loss is, at this point, still fairly presumptuous. Senate projection models from the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight and the Washington Post all show movement towards the Democrats and say that it’s basically a flip of the coin as to who’ll be in charge come January. Those are better odds than just about anyone would have given them a year ago.
All this assumes, of course, that Chuck Todd and his pundit panel are correct that Democrats are secretly yearning to give up control of half the legislature just so Hillary Clinton can have a ready-made punching bag on the stump for 2016. That argument certainly sounds very savvy, but it’s actually quite stupid and wildly cynical.