They lost their majority in the House and suffered significant loses in the Senate, but one has to look back to the 1960s to find a more active and legislatively successful Congress. They started with a bang, passing a major stimulus bill, and ended with a flurry of lame duck activity, repealing DADT, ratifying the new START treaty and passing a major tax and spending compromise bill. In between they passed health care reform, overhauled reform of the financial sector, expanded the powers of the FDA to regulate tobacco products, expanded hate crime laws to protect sexual orientation, increased protection of equal pay laws for women, and increased/reformed financial aid for college students.
To be sure, thanks to the filibuster the Republicans could stop them from tackling immigration reform, institute a CAP and trade system to put the US in line with other industrialized states in fighting global warming, or close Guantanamo Bay. Even in victory, the reforms of health care and the financial industry required major compromises, though in each case Democrats joined Republicans to make these compromises necessary. But like the laws or hate them, few will deny that the 111th Congress was the most active in a generation, often because of the personal leadership of President Obama, especially during the lame duck session.
The Democrats paid a price. Nancy Pelosi went from Speaker of the House to House Minority leader as Republicans gained more seats than any party has since the 1930s. In general, Americans don’t like their Congress too active, and in undertaking major reforms at a time of economic recession many thought the Administration and the Congress had misplaced priorities. To be sure, the amount of public spending and investment increased dramatically, designed to stimulate the economy, but the depth of the crisis caused Americans to doubt the wisdom of all these reforms. Ironically the left wing of the Democratic party, apparently unable to accept and enjoy success, often pouted over what they didn’t get, angry at “blue dogs” and others who forced often painful compromises on the majority. But politics is the art of the possible, and the Democrats did in two years probably all that they could have hoped to accomplish. Some acts were historic — repeal of DADT is a major civil rights landmark, while health care reform has been on the agenda since before WWII. Simply, the last two years may have been critical to shaping the future direction of the country over the next generation.
For President Obama, the goal now has to be to try to digest the changes, and integrate them into the federal bureaucracy and the political culture. To do that he must win re-election in 2012, regardless of what happens in the House and Senate. For Republicans opposed to the changes, they need to win the Presidency in 2012 if they want to have any hope of turning back the tide. Even then, they likely will find it hard to undo what has been done, but they’ll have a chance. Otherwise, by 2016 the changes will be so integrated into both the government and the public mindset that undoing them will be politically costly and will likely be supported by only the staunchest conservatives.
Republicans are crowing about their 2010 victories, but as Obama showed last month, political winds can shift on a dime. After all, Obama and the Democrats looked all but invincible in 2008. Moreover, the 2010 election found a very different electorate than voted in 2008 — more white, more conservative, and older. If Obama rejuvenates a good chunk of the “less frequent” voters who came out in 2008, that will go a long ways to turning around the electoral fortunes of the Democrats. By blocking the DREAM act — a path to citizenship to children born to illegals who want to go on to college or join the military — the Republicans also make it hard to make inroads in the group with the biggest demographic shift, Latinos.
Although the census made headlines by showing so-called “red” states gaining representation (though likely not enough to significantly alter electoral math), most of the growth was via immigration. If you include children of immigrants, it accounts for 60% of our growth. At this point, that’s actually good news for the Democrats who tend to do very well amongst Latinos. Republicans thought they’d have a shot at this group, actively courted by President George W. Bush in his campaign. They are often socially conservative and have world views that align reasonably well with the Republican party. However, immigration issues have pushed them to the Democrats in recent years, and if the Republicans don’t turn that around, this will be a major force helping President Obama win re-election in 2012.
The economy matters as well. As noted before, both Presidents Clinton and Reagan were less popular at this point in their Presidency than Obama is now. Both recovered as the economy recovered. If there is any good news on the economic front, that could make Obama’s re-election seem like an inevitability by mid-2012.
For the left of the Democratic party, the good news is that the Republicans are unlikely to turn back what President Obama with a Democratic Congress accomplished the last two years. The bad news is that most of the legislative work of even an eight year Obama Presidency has been achieved. The next six years will be tweaking programs, and creating an under-gird of regulations and bureaucratic procedures to make the reforms more effective. There may be qualitative improvements in areas like health care or financial reform, but almost certainly within the framework of what’s been passed.
Two issues that may still see significant progress are immigration and the federal budget. Assuming economic growth returns in some form, President Obama is likely to become a deficit hawk, and depending on the scope of the problem, this could yield significant changes to how government operates. On immigration if the Republicans do find that the Latino vote threatens to thwart their ability to win Presidential elections, or hold on to Congressional seats, they may return to the kind of ideas that John McCain and President Bush pushed back in 2007. In the tea party furor even McCain ran from his past position, but that could turn around and bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform may become possible.
If the Republicans do win the Presidency in 2012, they’ll find that there isn’t a magic “reset’ button they can push to simply undo what the 111th Congress accomplished. They’ll be able to make major changes in the health care reform (their headline issue), and may try to undo some of the financial reforms (though that would be politically risky). DADT will almost certainly stay repealed, the START treaty will remain in effect, and most of the more minor changes noted above will remain. Once something is passed it’s hard to repeal, though easier to revise. This means that, for better or worse, the actions of the 111th Congress will have effects that will linger for generations. While that may motivate Republicans, it also should cause Democrats to take heart, even as they get used to the phrase “Speaker Boehner.”