“It was a result that, Joe Biden said on Wednesday, gave everyone a “whew! sigh of relief” that Make America Great Again (Maga) Republicans are not taking over the government again.
Biden won and Donald Trump lost in midterm elections to decide control of Congress. But just as in 2020, a collective exhalation is not enough to spell the end of political dysfunction in America. Things are about to get messy.
For all their deflation, Republicans appear on course to capture a majority in the House of Representatives, albeit by a far smaller margin than history has suggested or crystal ball gazers had forecast.
That means the end of Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s reign as House speaker, at least for now. Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has announced his intention to take the speaker’s gavel. It might be better described as a poisoned chalice.
Should McCarthy prevail, his achingly slim majority will afford little room for maneuver when it comes to legislating. McCarthy will have to do deals either with Democrats or far-right Trump loyalists. In a House where every member fancies him or herself as president, the speaker could find himself perpetually bending to the will of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
It is hardly a prescription for national unity. Whatever happens in the Senate, which may be decided again in a Georgia runoff, America is returning to an era of divided government and two years of grinding trench warfare.
That spells trouble for Biden’s legislative agenda, echoing the plight of Barack Obama, who did big things in his first two years as president but found slim pickings over the following six.
Biden, who campaigned as an apostle of bipartisanship and did enjoy some wins – on infrastructure, gun safety, military veterans’ benefits – will now find Republicans more combative as everything comes to be seen through the prism of the 2024 election.
Expect the Republican majority to launch an array of congressional investigations ranging from the reasonable (Biden’s botched withdrawal to Afghanistan) to the grandstanding (Anthony Fauci’s coronavirus pandemic measures and Biden’s son Hunter’s laptop).
Expect a battle over lifting the limit on US debt with the potential to cause havoc in the economy. Expect a possible attempt by the the Maga wing of the party to impeach Biden on spurious grounds, effectively as payback for Democrats having twice hit Trump with the ultimate sanction.
But Republican overreach could prompt a public backlash and generates sympathy for the incumbent president.
Paul Ryan, the most recent Republican House speaker, from 2015 to 2019, warned on the new Control podcast: “The last thing I think the American people want to see is a new majority used as a tool for Trump’s vindictive campaign or a vendetta. That’s not what a majority is for; a majority is for advancing the interests of the American people. Looking forward, not looking backward to settle some guy’s scores. So that’s going to be a bit of a challenge.”
Ryan added: “It’s important that the adults in the room temper this by not just chasing conspiracy theories, going down rabbit holes or overreaching and just getting to truth and making sure that you hold an executive branch accountable.”
If Republicans are unable to resist the rabbit holes, none of it will be healthy for the governance of democracy, adding to the feedback loop that disaffected millions of people and made them crave a “drain the swamp” outside like Trump in the first place.
Hyperpartisan cable news and social media will continue to pour fuel on the flames. Twitter, now controlled by Elon Musk, might welcome back Trump just in time for an epically savage presidential campaign.
The chaos would also harm America abroad. Biden has spent two years trying to rebuild alliances and assure the world that its democracy is secure.
At a press conference in the state dining room on Wednesday, Biden retold the story of how, just after taking office, he attended a meeting of G7 leaders and assured them that America is back. “One of them turned to me and said, ‘For how long?’ It was a deadly earned question. ‘For how long?’”
In other words, was Trump the blip or is Biden the blip?
The sight of election-denying extremists ruling the roost in the US Capitol will hardly calm nerves in Berlin or Tokyo. Greene, a congresswoman from Georgia, recently declared: “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine. Our country comes first.”
Even McCarthy has warned Tuesday that Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they win the House. The bipartisan consensus in Washington on this issue – seen as critical to Biden’s perennial theme of democracy standing up to autocracy – could crumble with huge global ramifications
With a portrait of a pensive Abraham Lincoln looking on, Biden reflected on Wednesday: “The American people made it clear. They don’t want every day going forward to be a constant political battle. There’s too much of that going on. There’s too much that we have to do. The future of America is too promising to be trapped in an endless political warfare.”
But as reporters pressed him over whether he will run in 2024, and with Trump expected to announce his own White House bid next week, the next phase of political warfare is already under way. Given America’s structural flaws and democratic deficits, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.“