KEVIN LEININGER: Without a clear message, Tuesday’s congressional elections may produce stalemate — and that’s not all bad

Americans have voted for divided government again. But don't expect a rebirth of bipartisanship in Washington. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

In 1994, after President Bill Clinton had failed in efforts to reform health care and eliminate the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, Republicans took full control of Congress for the first time since 1952, gaining 53 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate. Within two years, Clinton had declared that the “era of big government is over,” signed a welfare-reform bill after vetoing two previous attempts and supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which for federal purposes defined the institution as the union of one man and one woman.

Barack Obama was in his first term as president in 2010, and in that year’s mid-term elections his party suffered some of its greatest congressional losses since the Great Depression, with Republicans recapturing the majority in the house by gaining 63 seats there while gaining six seats in the Senate. Unlike Clinton, Obama doubled down, reminding critics he had a “pen and a phone” and could circumvent Congress if necessary through the use of executive orders. In 2014, the GOP regained control of the Senate by picking up nine seats there and another 13 in the House.

Two undeniable “red waves”; two distinct responses by two very different Democratic presidents. In the wake of Tuesday’s results, look for Donald Trump to avoid Clinton’s conciliatory model in favor of Obama’s confrontational approach — and not just because the current president and his predecessor have at least narcissism in common.

As newly re-elected 3rd District U.S. Rep. Jim Banks told the post-election coney dog luncheon at Republican headquarters Wednesday, “there was no evidence of a ‘blue wave’ ” Tuesday. True, Democrats did regain control of the House by picking up at least 26 seats, but Republicans gained at least two seats in the Senate — including Hoosier Joe Donnelly’s — and probably more once all the votes are counted.

So with no unanimous rebuke of Trumpism or mandate for moderation, Trump will continue to do what seems to come naturally to him: confront his opponents whenever possible in forceful and often brutish ways. And he will have plenty of opportunity, as Democrats are already signaling their eagerness to use next year’s house majority to launch investigations into Trump’s taxes and who knows what else.

All of which makes it likely that little meaningful legislation will be passed for the next two years, with the possible exception of such bipartisan favorites as infrastructure funding. But Trump has a phone and a pen, too, and has already shown he’s ready and willing to use them. And, when it comes to judicial review of executive orders, Trump’s two appointments appear to have cemented a reliably conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The Republicans’ increased clout in the Senate means there may be more, although “original intent” justices may not be as friendly to non-legislative decrees as Trump expects.

With both parties increasingly viewing moderation as a four-letter word, House-Senate cooperation and compromise will become even more difficult starting in January. And, frankly that may not be all bad. As much as I would like to see certain things happen — tighter border security, for one — mostly I just want the federal government to limit itself to its constitutional duties and leave me alone. Imagine how much less hostility and anger politics would generate if only Washington, D.C., wasn’t so eager to control nearly every aspect of our lives?

That’s why local politics are genteel by comparison: Patching a pothole isn’t a partisan pursuit. Maybe Washington needs more potholes.

For all the talk of a Trump backlash, the president fared better in Tuesday’s mid-terms than many of his predecessors, perhaps in part because of the strong economy. Since 1906, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 seats in the House and four in the Senate. In fact, it’s rare when a sitting president’s party does well in mid-terms. Republicans gained six seats in the House and Two in the Senate for George W. Bush in 2002, but that was seen as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Whether Republicans or Democrats sustain or increase the margins established Tuesday could very well depend on the behavior of politicians like Trump, Nancy Pelosi and others not known for their civility.

Banks, in fact, said he wouldn’t be surprised by a push to impeach Trump in the House — even though the GOP Senate would make it an exercise in futility that might only irritate moderates and strengthen Trump. “But the Democrats are dysfunctional and will do what they always do: overreach,” he told Wednesday’s luncheon.

We’ll see. The temptation to do just that — on both sides — often proves irresistible.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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