Wishing Carefully

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Republicans should be mindful of the adage: be careful what you wish for.  This November, they may well get what they’re wishing for.  But there are pros and cons to getting wishes granted — even in the wish-a-day world of American politics.

Two wishes in particular stand out.  The first is frequently being voiced by Republicans these days: “I wish the election could be held tomorrow!”  It’s easy to understand why.  Fox News’ latest poll shows Republicans with a 46% to 37% lead on the generic ballot question and a 40% to 19% lead in voter intensity (answering “extremely interested” to the question, “How interested are you in the November elections?”).

It’s hard, then, for Republicans not to be sanguine about their prospects and want to translate those prospects into reality as soon as possible.  Like a lottery player seeing his numbers coming up, Republicans want to cash their ticket before the final numbers are called — perchance their ticket turns out to be a loser.  However, the Republicans’ poll numbers are only improving and the economic numbers driving those poll numbers promise to stay, at best, as dismal as they are now. Unemployment is at 9.6% and second quarter GDP increased at an anemic 1.6% annualized rate.  No one expects the economy to improve before November — and even if it did, that improvement would have no time to register with voters.

The other news-making issues — health care reform, the Gulf oil spill, federal deficits and debt, illegal immigration — all favor them too.

Republicans may well be in an even stronger position in two months than they are now.  They are certainly in a stronger one than they were two months ago.  So why would Republicans want this to stop?  There were Republicans saying they wanted the election to be held tomorrow two months ago as well.

The Republicans’ second wish is to regain control of Congress.  How can that be bad?  For one thing, if Republicans regain control of Congress, they will immediately take a share of responsibility for solving the nation’s problems.  If those problems were politically daunting enough to erase today’s lopsided Democratic majorities, why will they be any less dangerous to Republicans?

Moreover, the anti-incumbency mood prevailing today will not favor Republicans as much if they are in the majority.

The election this November is a referendum on Washington in general and the administration in particular.  This is good for Republicans for an obvious reason: Washington and the administration are unpopular.  It is also good for Republicans for another reason: Republicans are unpopular themselves.  However, if Republicans win a majority in Congress, the next election will be about them, and Republicans will need an agenda from the get-go to win over an electorate that is exceedingly quick to judgment.

Furthermore, taking over Congress means sharing responsibility for today’s problems with an untried partner, President Obama.

Consider 1994.  Clinton was in the White House.  He had been governor in a conservative Southern state before coming to Washington, so he had leadership experience and experience dealing with conservatives.

Obama is not Clinton.  He has less than two years of executive experience, and he gained that experience working with overwhelmingly Democratic Congressional majorities.

Clinton and the Republican majority he was forced to work with in many ways forged a mutually successful relationship.  Federal spending was cut, the deficit was eliminated, the economy grew, and both sides benefitted politically.

It is unclear how another such “shotgun marriage” would work out this time.  Solving problems now may be even more difficult than it was then — and it was difficult then: Remember the government shutdown?

Finally, a Republican majority would give Obama a foil.  It is no coincidence that the White House still blames Bush and the Republicans for the country’s problems.  Not only does Obama have little choice, but it is also his best argument.  His 2008 victory, the biggest by a Democrat since LBJ’s in 1964, showed him at his best: running against Republicans.  Republican Congressional majorities would give him that chance again.

When it comes to wishing, it is also said: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”  But wishes, like horses, can have a mind of their own.  Republicans must be careful about their mounting fortunes.  They neither know exactly what horse they will be astride nor where it may head.

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987-2000.