American voters appear to be delivering a serious rebuke to president Obama and the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections with early results suggesting that the Republicans are on track to make a net gain of more than fifty seats in the House of Representatives. However it is now highly unlikely that they will gain control of the Senate, with the Democrats retaining 52 or even 53 seats, down from their current hold of 59. A more dependable result will not emerge for several hours, due to variations in poll closing times, and the four hour time zone spread from the East Coast to Alaska.

Insofar as one can judge a uniform swing, it would appear to be around 7%, with the new House numbers projected as 236 Republicans to 199 Democrats, a reversal of the current Democrat majority of 77. The Democrats appear to have lost a significant number of seats listed as toss-ups, including three seats in Virginia, a brace in North Carolina and several seats in Ohio.

Early results had the Senate heading in the same direction, with the victory of Tea Party supported Kentucky candidate Rand Paul, 55-45%. However, the Republicans failed to win a seat in Connecticut, and have also lost in West Virginia, where former governor Jim Manshin ran against much of the Obama platform. Wins in Ohio and Florida were expected, as was the loss of former witch Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. The Democrats also picked up the house seat in the state, a rare gain.

The loss of the House means that the Obama administration cannot continue with any sort of legislative programme, as all major bills have to originate in the House. Continued Democrat control of the Senate means that the budget process will be a messy business of reconciliation between different votes and programmes. How that runs will depend entirely on strategic and tactical decisions by the Republican leadership, under their new speaker John Boehner.

Given the anti-deficit mood of the country, they will most likely present bills which effectively strip the cash from many of Obama’s programmes — including the first part of his healthcare programmes. They can’t repeal the healthcare bill — as the President could simply veto the legislation — but they may well originate such a bill in order to force the Democrats into blocking it.

The most difficult decisions would come with the budget process. In the Clinton era, the newly elected Congress of 1994 eventually shut down the government for several weeks, refusing supply. Though Bill Clinton is currently being held up as the sort of centrist Barack Obama should be, he held his ground, and the Republicans eventually crumbled, giving Clinton a greatly needed win.

That example will be uppermost in the minds of the GOP leadership, who are presumably aware that much of their new-found support comes from both an anti-incumbency mood, and a belief that some of Obama’s programmes need to be “nipped in the bud”, rather than that the President needs to be annihilated.

For that reason they will also be wary of dropping the big one — impeachment. Contrary to popular belief, impeachment is not the actual dismissal of a President — it’s the formal laying of charges of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. Those charges are laid in the House, and a trial of the President then occurs in the Senate. The GOP would have to be crazy brave to even attempt this. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was wrenching enough, and that occurred against the backdrop of the squalid Monica Lewinsky farce.

The prospect of the first black President, and a man of undoubted personal integrity, being hauled up by Congress would be an extraordinary gamble for the GOP. Should they win control of the Senate, is it one they would consider? Nothing is impossible this year.

Should they steer away from impeachment, they will nevertheless undoubtedly launch a series of committee investigations, inquiries and the rest, to paint the administration as corrupt insiders. They will have much to work with, even if there is no more than with any US administration. Michele Bachmann, the whacky right-winger who believes that the census is unconstitutional (even though it is actually in the Constitution), has argued that the new Congressional leadership should do “nothing but issue subpoenas”.

Whatever happens, the Republican leadership will have to deal with the Tea Party, this part-faction, part tendency within the party. The various Tea Party beak bodies have endorsed 129 House candidates, and nine candidates in the 37 Senate races. Many of the House Tea Partiers are standing in solid Democratic districts, but they’ll probably win about 25-30 seats in the House. They’ll capture between three to seven Senate seats — Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky are already assured, as is Mike Lee in Utah. Other strong possibilities are Sharron Angle unseating Harry Reid in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado, with Joe Miller rapidly fading in Alaska (though he will most likely lose to former Republican Lisa Murkowski, whom he replaced in the primary).

What will happen in the House, where the Republicans will be originating bills, including large budget bills? Of necessity, these will be big-spending bills, running the government of a 21st century empire — and also ensuring the re-election of many local members, with pork and earmarks in the age-old manner. Will the Tea Party caucus react at that point? Will this be the staging point for their next wave of insurgency, targeting for removal, in 2012, the next tranche of mainstream, business Republicans who have every interest in keeping the show on the road?

Should the GOP gain control of the Senate, the Tea Party will suddenly have great power in the US — for they could withdraw the support that the GOP leadership needs to pass bills on a simple majority vote. That would leave the GOP leadership with the unseemly prospect of either moving to the hard right – something that business would not like, as it would challenge many of their entitlements — to gain Tea Party support, or passing more centrist bills with Democrat support. This would be the focus for a total and comprehensive civil war within the Republican Party.

As numerous commentators have noted, this partial result may be far from the worst thing for Barack Obama, going into the 2012 race. With the Republicans now in government, the President has someone to run against – all the more so, if the GOP leadership is fighting off internal dissent over necessary compromises and business as usual. Whether or not he can take advantage of that remains to be seen.

Whatever difficulties the Democrats have had to bear through ill-luck, controversial policies or the like, one whole dimension of this loss is due to the political failure of Obama and his team to take people with him, on the road of government, and the assumption that politics could be exchanged for administration on the day after the inauguration. He may find within him something he needs to revive the Obama presidency as a political project, but there has been little sign of it in this campaign, and no indication that its rebuke will be taken into, and change, the heart of American liberalism.

STOP PRESS: despite universal projection of a GOP takeover of the House, the Democrat leadership has released a statement claiming that it is too early to tell, and that they are confident in retaining control of the House.

Peter Fray

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