Are big majorities undesirable?
Steamrollers can be tricky to drive
In the rush to try and secure 60 US Senate seats, and to breach the 250-seat mark in the House of Representatives, I wonder whether the Obama campaign ever considered that you could have too much of a good thing.
For instance, I found it strange that, with such a fundraising advantage, Obama wasn’t redistributing his campaign’s wealth to tight Congressional races. This would have allowed for extra members of the Democratic majority in both chambers, and bought some key allies in the months ahead. Instead the Obama campaign horded its cash, and allowed the DNC to run up debts. It now occurs to me that this was not just the absolute prioritisation of the contest with John McCain, but might have been a strategic decision.
- Contrary to popular wisdom, Barack Obama’s main obstacle to passing his manifesto pledges is not going to be the GOP rump left on Capitol Hill – it will be the emboldened members of the Democratic caucus in the House and Senate who are more of a threat to his well-laid plans.
Already, Senator Max Baucus of Montana is marking up his long-standing plans for Universal Healthcare, which follows Hillary Clinton’s model of mandatory coverage – a policy which Obama does not support. Whilst the President-Elect is stuck in limbo, not wishing to confuse matters by governing whilst his soon-to-be-predecessor is still in the Oval Office, Congressional leaders are mobilizing their agenda which in some cases differs markedly from that of Obama.
- As well as not releasing funds to the DCCC and DSCC, Obama has taken the bold (but in my opinion, brilliant) step of appointing Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his future White House Chief of Staff. This indicates that he wants someone who knows the Hill, but will be as good at cracking heads within the Democratic party as inspiring fear in the GOP.
I would suggest that a much larger House majority would have posed a significant challenge to the President-Elect, and his administration will perhaps have reason to be glad that Harry Reid and Dick Durbin only hold 57 seats at present (including Lieberman and Sanders). As has been mentioned on PB.com, they need 60 VOTES in the Senate to invoke Cloture, not 60 seats – and Senators such as the delegation from Maine (Snowe and Collins) exemplify the voices of moderation from what used to be the Gang of Fourteen that could be called upon if needed. To stretch the case, giving either the Senate Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House (even of his own party) unilateral veto override power would actually be a serious threat to his Presidency.
Large caucuses present several problems: not only is the body of members harder to control when it gets large, but there is also a suggestion that massive majorities tend to produce lower-quality candidates. Those in prime seats likely to be gained will have been vetted, chosen carefully, placed on the A-list etc. They will consequently owe the party a sincere debt of gratitude, putting rebellion far from their minds. Those who were in a 150-ish target will not have been scrutinised by anything like the same strech, and will owe the party less for their position. They have little reason to be as obedient.
If this is correct, I think David Cameron needs to be very careful what he wishes for – some of the seat calculators have suggested Conservative majorities of up to 150. Suffice it to say that I think a majority of that size would be unwieldy and that discipline would be more problematic than any benefits of an imposing crowd at PMQs.
For the occasions when it is very important (such as confirming a Supreme Court Judge) or when issues are controversial, huge majorities can be a true boon. Being able to shut-down a Republican filibuster without invoking the Nuclear Option must be attractive for Obama as a partisan Democrat. That said, the Congress is a separate branch of government, independent of the Executive – it has its own power bases, its own fundraising capabilities, and rarely allows itself to be pushed around or directed from the West Wing. If the Democratic majorities had been much bigger, would that not have posed a very serious threat to the President-Elect’s power?
So how should this lesson be translated from American-English? Every leader dreams of the huge majority, but in the UK especially they are largely unnecessary, and mean a permanent risk to the current leadership. If I were David Cameron, I’d be considering the maximum number of seats I’d like to win as well the minimum. Any guesses on that front?