Washington After the Wave
A Change Ahead?
In the course of American history, the usual pattern of mid-term Congressional elections in the United States had been for the governing party in the White House to lose some ground. Voters could let off some steam about what they liked or did not like about the administration. That would then tip off the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic Parties about what they needed to do to position themselves for the presidential elections two years later.
And then there are those instances when there is a political wave when the White House gets a very loud and unfriendly wake up call. In 1974, in the midst of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon, the Republicans, already in the minority, lost a substantial number of seats in Congress and went on to lose the White House in 1976. In 1994, it was the Democrats who were to suffer a sweep of over fifty seats, giving the Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. President Clinton's first two years in office after the 1992 elections were full of stumbles and he paid the price. Yet unlike Jimmy Carter, Clinton was able to win a second term in office. By 2002, President Bush was two years into the White House and the Republicans had won control of both houses of Congress.
Four years later, all signs point to another wave with the Democrats poised to win the House back and maybe even the Senate. The national unhappiness with the unfolding of events in Iraq during the past three years, plus the disappointment among voters on both sides of the political aisle with regard to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the inability to deal with emotional issues like illegal immigration, the future of social security, huge mountains of debt piling up, corruption in the Congress and the recent revelation of a sex scandal surrounding a Republican Congressman and young boys serving in the Congress -- all of these issues can lead to many Republican voters deciding to stay home on November 7 and to many Democrat voters mobilizing to do the opposite. In the middle, the independents may move their loyalties back to the Democrats as well.
And what will happen if the Democrats take both sides of Congress or just the House? What will that mean for the course of American foreign policy in the final two years of the Bush administration? And what does that mean for transatlantic relations and for the German-American dialogue?
The fact is that the foreign policy agenda on November 8 will be the same as it was the day before. We are still looking at threats coming out of North Korea, Iran, and a very unpredictable situation continuing in Iraq as it slides further toward civil war. There is a continuing stalemate between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the summer's violence on the Lebanese border is still generating aftershocks; we have continuing genocide being carried out in Darfur; and the Doha trade round is virtually dead, just to mention a few.
While we will have a lame duck Congress only until the new legislative period begins in mid January, we will have a lame duck president for the next two years. If the Congress is split, for example, into a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, the question will be whether the two sides of both chambers, the two ends of the Capitol Building and the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will be able to work out a coherent response to all these challenges.
Impact on Foreign Policy
Foreign policy remains the domain of the White House; Congress has limited direct influence in this realm. President Bush can continue to set the agenda, although Congress will be far less predictable, particularly with many leading figures thinking about how they would look inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With a rare joker in the deck - the fact that the Vice President is not going to be among that ambitious group - it is even more difficult to predict what common ground will be found in determining the foreign policy priorities for the next two years. Whatever the results are on November 7, both Republicans and Democrats will be reading them to position themselves for the November election in 2008. That can be a formula for gridlock, with both sides unwilling to cede too much ground to the other. If Congress is split, the opportunities for reaching compromises on legislation may be hampered by Democrats who want accountability for the past six years and by Republicans who want to protect what their majority had accomplished. That can lead to confrontational Congressional hearings, calls for filibusters, and eventually a presidential veto. Things would just wobble along.
Meanwhile, the need for taking steps to deal with the continuing wave of bloodshed in Iraq, along with the many other immediate dangers facing the United States and its allies, will be increasing. Yet most of those dangers need American resources and resolve if they are going to be met, and the fact is that the Democrats do not have a coherent and unified voice on many of these issues to begin with.
One needs to recall that Democrats voted with the Republicans on the Patriot Act renewal, the legislation on torture, and of course on the decision to give the president permission to use force in Iraq. There is not much room for a vastly different set of realistic options to choose from when it comes to dealing with Iraq, Iran, or North Korea.
Finally, what will President Bush want to have as his legacy in January of 2009? Not known for easily admitting mistakes, the challenge will be for him to decide what he feels he has to have accomplished by then.
What Can Europe Do in the Next Two Years?
America will be a difficult nation to decipher during the next two years. Bush feels the country cannot appear wobbly at a critical time in the war against terror but must "stay the course." Yet what constitutes "staying the course" has become a question without a clear answer. While the President will continue to want to set whatever course he chooses, there will be more resistance in Congress; however, that is exactly what the voters may have seen enough of. The wave of dissatisfaction with Congress has reached historical highs and the party polarization in the recent past has caused increasing concerns that a steady and resolute foreign policy with a clear security strategy is being undercut exactly when we need it most.
Under such circumstances, Europeans can best serve their own interests by offering options. For example, there will be pressure on President Bush to take out Iran's nuclear facilities before he leaves office. Can Europe offer a realistic alternative to contain Tehran's nuclear ambitions? In the wake of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, can Europe engage Syria more effectively toward creating a basis for stability? Can Europe help strengthen the ability of UN sanctions to have an impact on North Korea?
Germany can help set the tone and the agenda within the framework of its dual role as President of the EU during the first half of 2007 and Chairman of next year's G8 meeting in Berlin. That is also an opportunity to generate a stronger consensus within Europe on many fronts.
Whatever the wave leaves behind on November 7, it will be in everyone's interest to avoid winding up with a wobbly Washington.
This essay appeared in the October 27, 2006 AICGS Advisor.