America's looming freak show: How GOP control in 2015 will terrorize a nation - with no political repercussion

Yes, Republicans will shame themselves if they run Congress -- but here's why it'll be torture for the rest of us

Published October 17, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz                                           (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)
Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)

I’m an optimist who’s expert at finding silver linings – American progressives have to be -- but the case rapidly picking up steam that another midterm loss will be good for Democrats is both silly and a little dangerous.

Bill Scher made the argument from the left as well as anyone could, while this piece by the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, coming from the center-right, was more predictable and vexing. (Paul Waldman took a shot at it back in August, here.) The Washington Post's Phillip Bump followed and endorsed Seib's argument. But those takes rely at least in part on the notion that if Republicans gain the Senate, they’ll either have an incentive to help “govern” – or they’ll shame themselves in the eyes of the American public if they don’t. Unfortunately, neither premise is true.

In fact, I’m concerned that worsening political dysfunction perpetuates itself by convincing more Americans that politics is futile. The Obama coalition in particular – younger, less white, less well off than even prior coalitions of Democrats – has gotten so little that’s tangible from its history-making turnout in 2012 (and yes I’ve read that Krugman piece and I mostly agree.) The prospect of its coalescing to become a permanent force in American politics has been at least postponed, if not thwarted entirely, by the deliberate GOP sabotage of the political process.

For me, the backdrop to this depressing midterm election is not merely ISIS and Ebola, but continued unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where it seems unlikely Officer Darren Wilson will face consequences for shooting Michael Brown. From New York to Los Angeles, the issue of police violence just gets worse. There’s increasing activism on the issue, which is great to see – the crowds that turned out for “Ferguson October” over the weekend, and into Monday, were inspiring.

Yet little of the activism is tied to voting, at least partly because the electoral system has done so little to solve the problem, even in cities with liberal mayors. New York alone has paid a half billion out to the victims of police abuse just since 2009. I’m excited by the new young leadership on police issues even as I’m worried about this election – and maybe that combination makes me uniquely unable to deal with the notion that Democrats losing the Senate next month could have a silver lining.

Bill Scher reprised his Politico argument on MSNBC’s “Up with Steve” on Saturday, continuing to press the case that Republicans will suffer politically “if they look like a completely dysfunctional party incapable of governing.” (Scher, unlike Seib, holds out no false hope that the GOP will get its act together and compromise with Obama if it wins back the Senate.)

But Republicans already look like a completely dysfunctional party incapable of governing, and they’re on the verge of another great midterm win. A year after the government shutdown, it’s shocking even to me how little it ultimately cost the party politically. Everyone knew that October 2013 polls weren’t as important as October 2014, and that the GOP would have a year to recover – but even I didn’t believe that they would, so completely.

The shutdown cost the economy $24 billion in growth. It showed the nation the incompetence of House GOP leadership. It exposed the civil war in the Senate. The country saw that the party was craven, dysfunctional, agenda-free and not merely incapable of governing, but uninterested in it. After the shutdown, the share of voters identifying themselves as Republican dropped to 25 percent in Gallup polling, the lowest level in 25 years, and polls showed Democrats might have a shot at taking back the House.

But a year later, Republicans are in no danger of losing the House and have a better than even chance to take back the Senate. Even at the time, it was clear that a feckless, frenetic media -- which immediately went on to treat Obamacare web site glitches as just as catastrophic as the GOP’s shutdown debacle -- would let the party off the hook. Yet so have voters. The Republican base is more than content to have its leaders do nothing but block and sabotage Obama. And the Democratic base still disproportionately sits out the midterms, which lets the obstructionists dominate the agenda.

Seib holds out hope that a GOP Senate might be able to deliver on immigration reform. Continued Beltway optimism about that prospect is delusional. Given that the Senate already passed a (slightly bipartisan) bill, GOP control won’t change anything. Sadly, even the president fell for the fiction that the House would eventually take up the issue for far too long, postponing executive action on deferring deportations so that he couldn’t do it before the midterms – and now there’s worry about depressed Latino 2014 turnout as a result. Let’s hope nobody in the White House falls for that again.

Scher takes special comfort from the fact that 2016 looms, giving the GOP “the opportunity to work out its dysfunctional family issues under the white-hot spotlight of a presidential campaign.” There’s no doubt 2016 will be much better for Democrats. The base turns out for presidential elections, and the Senate map that year will be as tough on Republicans as it is in 2014 on Democrats, forcing the GOP to defend more seats and offering their rivals more pickups. All of that is a given.

But even a 2016 rout is unlikely to force Republicans to focus on a policy agenda and commit to governing again. All they have to do is thwart the plans of President Hillary Clinton, or whomever, and reap the rewards two years later.

Until the Democrats’ structural disadvantage in voter turnout is corrected, American politics is an endless feedback loop of futility: little or no policy change leads to a discouraged electorate, which ensures little or no policy change, which guarantees more voter apathy. Democrats may yet keep the Senate, and if they do it will come down to greater grassroots and national emphasis on turning out unmarried women voters (more on that later this week). But if they don’t, there will be no silver lining.

Sure, it will be entertaining to watch de facto House Speaker Ted Cruz make life even more miserable for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s a given that the 2016 Republican primary race will be as big a freak show as 2012 (and maybe even with Mitt Romney again too!) But this optimist no longer believes the GOP will pay any lasting price for more cartoonish dysfunction. But the rest of us will, for a long time.

By Joan Walsh