We keep having “pivotal” elections, but politicians never learn much from them, so our dysfunctional political system never benefits much from them. The ideological divide is so wide and the winner-take-all response to elections so seductive that the victors cannot recognize that the unarticulated mandate of recent elections has been for moderation.
By the end of January 2015 we will know whether last week’s “pivotal” election caused actual pivoting or simply produced a showy 360-degree pirouette, changing nothing. By then, the strengthened Republican congressional leadership in Washington, D.C., and the recycled Republican leadership in Topeka will have made their intentions clear.
But we already have a hint: Last Wednesday, before campaign-begrimed voters could finish washing their hands and begin a respite from snarkiness, the 2016 campaign broke out.
Wasting little time on talk of comity and compromise, the Republican leadership in Washington signaled that its strategy of scapegoating Barack Obama will continue for two more years. The beguiling objective of electing a Republican president and consolidating the Senate majority in 2016 will dictate every move.
The leaders need do nothing substantive, just pound Obama. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, immediately set the tone – and the trap – by loudly warning Obama not to act unilaterally on immigration because that would make congressional action “impossible.” As Boehner’s caucus has zero interest in reform and Obama is morally obligated to act – presto! – Obama is again the obstructionist.
The strategy on the Affordable Care Act is similarly cynical and focused on 2016. Most Republicans know that repeal cannot happen for at least two years and by then likely will be unthinkable for all but the most rabid opponents. Yet they campaigned on that issue and now will bombard Obama with bills for repeal and multiple crippling amendments, forcing vetoes and requiring senators, including 10 Democrats up for re-election in 2016, to vote repeatedly on a dead issue.
Similarly, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vows not to close down the government, but expect a series of appropriations bills that Obama cannot possibly sign, another veto-inducing move aimed at 2016.
The fact that Republicans received less than half the votes cast for Senate candidates nationwide will be an ignored footnote throughout the two years of maneuvering.
As for Topeka, when Gov. Sam Brownback purged moderate Republican legislators in 2012, he cleared the way for his radical agenda of unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy, limiting teachers’ appeal rights, eroding judicial branch equality, nullifying federal rights and laws, and denying Medicaid benefits to the poor, reproductive control to women and marriage to anyone in love.
His 2015 Legislature duplicates the ones that rubber-stamped his agenda, so there’s no reason to think that the news from Topeka will get any better for the people who voted against him – which was more than half of all Kansas voters.
It would be reasonable for a governor who lost 13 percentage points of support between his first and second terms to curb his more extreme instincts. And a minority governor should be careful about interpreting support from less than 25 percent of voting-age Kansans as a mandate because “the people of Kansas” have spoken.
The challenges of cleaning up his fiscal mess and dealing with a probable court ruling that Kansas schools are unconstitutionally underfunded could chasten him a bit, but not if his eyes are also locked on 2016.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at email@example.com.