The midterm elections
It looks likely that when Americans go to the polls on November 4 they will keep the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives and take the Senate away from the Democrats. Aggregating all available polling, the respected website RealClearPolitics.com is predicting the Republicans will win a 51 seat majority in the Senate with the Democrats reduced to 48 seats.
The Washington Post Election Lab modelling predicts the Republicans will come away with 52 seats and gives the Republicans an 87% chance of winning the Senate and a 99% chance of retaining the House. It is remotely possible that the Democrats could benefit from a last minute scandal or gaffe by the Republican leadership or a sudden surge of patriotism if President Barack Obama rises to one of the many challenges he faces. But it is just as likely that there will be a last minute Republican “wave.”
What would a divided government mean for U.S. foreign policy and Korea?
First, it is important to take a snapshot of the public’s current mood. By large margins, Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction, and they’re unhappy with Obama’s handling of the Islamic State (ISIS), Ukraine and the Ebola virus. However, there is a deep reservoir of internationalism in the American public towards Asia that many observers miss. In the most recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll of American attitudes towards the world, a majority of the public expressed support for Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and a forward military presence in Korea.
A majority of Americans also say the United States should stand by our Asian allies even if it hurts U.S. relations with China. Numerous polls show that the American public considers Asia the most important region in the world for U.S. interests. In fact, support for all of those pillars of U.S.-Korea relations and U.S. strategy in Asia has increased since the last Chicago Council poll in 2012. In short, while Obama’s support has dropped to around 35% according to the RealClearPolitics average of polling and support for his foreign policy is the lowest ever, that does not necessarily apply to Asia policy, where there is much more robust bipartisan consensus.
The Republican Party has also shifted back to its traditional internationalism. In 2012, Tea Party candidates dominated the elections. They were isolationist and anti-establishment. Many were simply not ready for the national spotlight. One Senate candidate in Delaware had to promise she was not a witch, while a Republican Tea Party candidate in Missouri destroyed the Republican brand by arguing that rape was defensible in some circumstances. The Democrats could not have asked for a more amateurish and bizarre set of candidates.
This time around, the Republican candidates - especially in the Senate - are from the establishment/internationalist wing of the party. A number of them, like Dan Sullivan in Alaska and Tom Cotton in Arkansas, are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sullivan was the senior State Department diplomat in charge of trade in the Bush administration. Even the leaders of the Tea Party in the Senate, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, are shifting their stances on foreign policy to be more internationalist as they read the changing attitudes of the American public and their own party.
Perhaps the beheading of two innocent Americans by the Islamic State brought out the public’s “Jacksonian” mood - a reference to the way President Andrew Jackson sent in the Navy and the Marines when Americans were threatened abroad in the 1830s. Americans don’t like to be bullied and the national sentiment is that Obama is allowing adversaries like Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State push us around.
The Democratic Party is more confused this time around. Candidates are trying to project the Republicans as anti-women, but polls show that women are supporting Republicans much more this election than in 2012. Democrats are also more divided on trade and national security now than Republicans. The Democrats in Congress are either ignoring or running against TPP because they need labor union support. Meanwhile, some of the President’s most vocal critics in the campaign against the Islamic State are on the anti-war left wing of the Democratic Party.
None of this is to say that the Republicans have clear sailing to the presidential election in 2016. In fact, the Republicans have a major structural problem because their harder line on immigration is driving Latinos and Asian Americans into the arms of the Democrats, and those are the fastest growing demographic groups. This is not as apparent in mid-term elections when the voters tend to be more senior and more white. Do not be surprised if a chastened Obama administration introduces immigration reform legislation in 2015 in an effort to divide the Republican Party and hurt its brand.
A Republican victory on November 4 will damage Obama’s standing. When President George W. Bush lost the Congress in 2006, he faced a basic “bandwidth” problem. Congress could obstruct so many policies that the President had to settle on a few priority areas to use his depleted political capital. For Bush the surge in Iraq was a high priority. Ambassador Chris Hill’s outreach to Pyongyang in 2007-2008 was not.
The silver lining for the president is that divided governments (when Congress and the presidency are held by different parties) are often the most productive. Both Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress will be expected to stop politicking and begin delivering. Administration and Congressional sources both note the general bipartisanship around Asia policy and argue that TPP is one area where a majority of Republicans working with the administration could overcome opposition to free trade among Democrats in Congress.
The question is whether Obama has the experience or the inclination to reach across the aisle on a complex issue like TPP. In the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate, Obama rarely worked on legislation together with Republicans. As president, he passed health care legislation affecting 17% of the U.S. GDP without a single Republican vote. And the fact is that the president could have had at least some token Republican support if he had agreed to serious tort reform or other symbolically important issues to the Republican Party.
Republicans may also be tempted to slow down TPP so that they can divide Democrats over trade policy in the 2016 election cycle just as Democrats hope to divide Republicans over immigration. The one thing that might motivate the White House to get serious about working on trade with Republicans will be the fact that the president’s first overseas trip after the election will be to Asia for the East Asia and APEC summits and he will need to show the American people that he can deliver.
Democracy, as they say, is the worst form of government except for all the other ones. One thing is certain not to change after this election, and that is the bipartisan support for the U.S.-ROK alliance in Washington.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green