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Reading the Midterm Tea Leaves

The results of a midterm election, more than a presidential election, are an aggregate of a series of independent elections.

Note: This is part of a series of essays examining the prospects for electing a republican president in 2016 and ultimately reining in the modern imperial presidency through the lens of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch.

Making sense of election results has become a second election of sorts in contemporary politics. No one could have welcomed a second bite at the apple more than President Obama, who went from out-of-demand campaign surrogate to political pundit-in-chief overnight. While claiming he didn’t “want to read the tea leaves,” the president nevertheless announced his verdict on the midterm election:

The American people overwhelmingly believe that this town doesn’t work well, and that it is not attentive to their needs. And as president, they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly . . . They want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through some of the gridlock, and get stuff done.

No one could blame President Obama for doing his part to make post-election coverage exciting. One of the responsibilities Americans have given their presidents is to chime in as quickly as possible on everything under the sun. And no leader in American history has paid more attention to the American people’s entertainment needs than the president–from March Madness picks on ESPN to the dangers of Pop Warner football and his wife’s night at the Oscars.

The problem for President Obama is that a growing number of Americans have tuned him out. So, until he recaptures the attention of the American public, he may have to leave the business of crafting grand American metanarratives to others–a difficult task for a writer of two epic personal memoirs.

With that reality in mind, four competing narratives have emerged to define last week’s events.

2014 was actually a win for Progressives (Gail Collins, Margaret Talbot, John Judis) – Perhaps nearest and dearest to President Obama’s ego and inner circle, this line of thinking suggests that smart Republicans have realized that progressivism is the wave of the future. Cory Gardner ran a successful Colorado campaign because he moved to the center on social issues and intimated as much on immigration. The Ted Cruz brand is a Tea Party pinata easily ignored by an increasingly centrist Republican party and beaten down (or laughed at) by everyone else. And the numbers show that any conservative gains resulted from a very favorable Republican map. Throw in the ballot initiative victories for marijuana legalization and minimum wage hikes and the only sensible conclusion is: Forward!

Democrats forgot their winning class-warfare message (Alec MacGillis, Joel Kotkin) – There was no good reason in 2014 to abandon the mantra that the Democratic Party is the party “who cares more about people like me,” and the Republican Party is the party of rich bankers who don’t care about the middle class. Play it again Hillary and become President in 2016.

Voters trust Republicans to get the job done! (Boehner/McConnell, Peter Beinart) – The pragmatic, Republican establishment rendition of the first narrative, “Now we can get Congress going.” 2014 marked the year that the Republican Party cared about winning rather than debating matters of religious, moral, and ideational indeterminacy. Setting aside everything but the economic and fiscal issues will liberate shark tank investors to raise money for Rove-approved, responsible 2016 Republican presidential, House, and Senate hopefuls.

It’s the President, stupid! (Ron Fournier, Victor Davis Hanson, Byron York, Carol Lee, Sean Trende) – 2014, plain and simply, was an election about Barack Obama. “Barack Obama is now a toxic brand. Arrogance and incompetence are a fatal brew.” (VDH) The Republican mantra on the trail was “Senator/Rep. X voted with President Obama 99% of the time.” (York) President Obama was invited to campaign with only one Senate candidate in an uncompetitive state (Lee). A 44% presidential approval rating was a recipe for near double digit and double digit losses in the Senate and the House, respectively (Trende).

Well, as Fox News loves to proclaim, You decide!

Unfortunately, there are good reasons to believe that the politics of the next two years will be defined by advocates of every narrative but the last (and most plausible)–beginning with the fact that neither party’s political establishment (nor the Democrats’ left-wing insurgents) find it congenial to their interests or ideology.

The president’s narrative is an attractive one, for him and fellow progressives, since the problem is not getting enough “stuff done,” rather than doing or advocating the wrong “stuff.” No positions or programs need to change, just (perhaps) tactics–and then only if and when you can’t work around Congress. Moreover, since President Obama has been peddling the “do-nothing” House narrative since Republicans regained control of it in 2011, his private comfort is surely that he’s a victim of friendly fire: the public anger at Republican-induced gridlock somehow misaimed and hit Democrats–no doubt thanks to the Koch brothers.

A solipsistic independence from the events of the last week and a ready executive action pen, then, is what we can expect from President Obama. The American founders wanted an independent-minded president too, but not one disconnected from reality–or the constitutional limits of his office.

As we wrote last week, Alexander Hamilton advocated a unitary executive in Federalist 70 in part because it would be easier for the people (and, if need be, the Congress) to hold a single president accountable for his behavior in office than one who divides responsibility with a co-president or executive council. That did not mean, as Federalist 71 makes clear, that Hamilton wanted a president who sways with every “sudden breeze of [public] passion.” To be responsible and to be responsive are two different things:

The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.

Presidents ought to possess enough “personal firmness” to weather a passing political storm, risking the public’s temporary displeasure to promote their ultimate good. Such “firmness” would be buttressed, Hamilton argued, by the relatively lengthy 4-year presidential term (at least compared to the terms of founding-era governors), without compromising the president’s electoral accountability.

Republicanism, nevertheless, demands that the “deliberate sense of the community should govern.”  But where is that to be found? The answer begins with the Constitution itself. A stable, fundamental law defining the role of the federal government vis-a-vis the states (and the residual power of the people) and each federal branch vis-a-vis the others is the best expression of the people’s settled judgment about what ought to be done by her responsible officeholders. This, of course, leaves many particular questions unanswered: Which objects should we tax and how much? How and to what degree should we regulate interstate commerce? How large a military should we build and where and when should we deploy it? Nevertheless, the Constitution defines the first boundaries of presidential independence.

The nation will naturally divide over different visions of how to answer the questions the Constitution only raises, often along party lines.

The nation will naturally divide over different visions of how to answer the questions the Constitution only raises, often along party lines. A vote for a party’s candidate on election day is, to some degree or another, a vote for that party’s answers to those questions. To what degree, then, should we consider election results as testimony to the “deliberate sense of the community”? That depends a lot on: (1) the degree to which the “community” can express itself on election day; (2) the degree to which the “community” is asked to choose between competing programs on election day, and (3) the consistency of its electoral judgments.

The results of a midterm election, more than a presidential election, are an aggregate of a series of independent elections. The “sense” of the people of San Francisco may vary widely from the “sense” of the people of South Carolina. Nevertheless, when dominant patterns emerge–like last Tuesday–and a slew of new officeholders follow, there is good reason to believe some overall message is intended. But what? Unfortunately, this is where we see the sad irony embedded in (correct) analysis of the fourth narrative above. Against President Obama is not the same as pro anything–and Republicans went out of their way, at least nationally, not to be defined by any sort of positive agenda.

Senator Mike Lee, recognizing this, has proposed a framework for fixing Congress as the first step toward winning the American people to a long-term project of republican renewal. A republican presidential candidate in 2016 can most advance this cause by running forthrightly on a program of principled, if, at points, incremental (see George Will’s recent column), reform toward constitutional government. Win the election on such a platform and you can rightly persist in pursuing it when public opinion wavers–but it will take more than a Republican equivalent of “hope and change” (like “Now we can get Congress going”) to get it done.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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