Self-aware Republicans in Congress are beginning to worry that they're headed for a disaster in the 2018 election. They probably are, both because of the unique circumstances of the moment and the fact that midterm election disasters have become the norm for the president's party in recent years. So if they've only got two years in complete control of the government, how much damage can they do? Or to put it another way (if you're a Republican), just how much greater will they make America?
First, though, here's what I mean when I say that midterm disasters have become the norm. The president's party almost always loses seats in midterms, because in an election where only about one out of every three voters shows up, the party that's more motivated will probably win. No political motivation is stronger than anger, and the people who are ticked off at the president are almost inevitably going to feel more strongly than the ones who think he's doing a fine job.
Look at recent midterm elections. Republicans had a huge win in 2010, when the country was still mired in an economic crisis and their base was angry about the wave of progressive legislation passed in Barack Obama's first two years. But they had another huge win in 2014, when the economy was doing much better and the GOP-controlled House had already shut down any legislative action for years.
It goes back farther than that. In 2006, with the Iraq War going poorly and George W. Bush's approval ratings low, Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress. In 2002, Republicans managed not to lose ground — but that election was a little over a year after the Sept. 11 attacks. Four years prior, the midterms happened at the end of the Republicans' ill-considered impeachment of Bill Clinton, which caused a public backlash that limited their gains. Four years prior to that was the earthquake of 1994.
So four of the last six midterms were "wave" elections where at least one house of Congress changed hands, and the two exceptions were because of unique circumstances. That should be our baseline expectation if nothing extraordinary happens. Before we even consider the corner Republicans have backed themselves into by bungling their repeal of the Affordable Care Act, they'll be dragged down by a (probably) unpopular president while they face a left that is angry, animated, and organized.
Even though they have a thin majority in the Senate and a healthy one in the House, it's actually the latter that is more at risk for the GOP. That's because they have an extraordinarily favorable Senate map in 2018. Democrats will be defending 25 seats (counting the Democratic-voting independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King), while Republicans will be defending only nine. And of those nine, only one (Nevada) is in a state that Hillary Clinton won last year. So if Democrats are going to take one of Congress' houses, it will probably be the House.
If you're a Republican congressman, you might say to yourself, "If there's a wave election, I'm in trouble no matter what I do. So why don't we just go crazy? You never know when we'll get this chance again." That's a reasonable position to take, especially if you're a committed ideologue.
Repealing the ACA could be just the start. Republicans could pass a major tax cut, boost military spending, and take a chainsaw to all the parts of government they don't like. Indeed, we're hearing that the Trump administration's budget will do just that, going for deep cuts in housing assistance, diplomacy, legal services for the poor, arts funding, and a whole raft of other items Republicans never liked in the first place. Defunding Planned Parenthood is an opening move — why not try to pass a bill making abortion illegal, either directly or by regulating abortion clinics out of existence? You never know what the Supreme Court might look like by the time the legal challenges work their way up. Paul Ryan already has his Medicare privatization plan written, so why not move it through Congress? And how about instead of just installing a climate denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, you eliminate the EPA altogether?
One reason that such a legislative orgy might not succeed is that the Democrats still have the filibuster in the Senate, which means they can stop anything without a direct budgetary impact (bills that affect the budget can be passed through reconciliation, which only requires 50 votes). But if Republicans really thought this was an all-or-nothing moment, they could change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, then put all their legislation on a conveyor belt to the president's desk.
Back in 2012, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told Republicans that all they needed in a president was "a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen" so he could sign the legislation Congress sent him. And that was a big reason why Republicans offered Donald Trump such loyalty in the 2016 election: Some may have had reservations about him, but he'd sign all those bills and advance their goals.
Yet oddly enough, after waiting so long for this moment, Republicans in Congress have sent President Trump almost nothing apart from a bill to allow coal companies to dump ash in streams and a bill lifting the requirement for oil companies to report the payments they make to foreign governments. When it comes to laying waste to the government, they've barely gotten started.
Compare that to Barack Obama's first term. By this time in his presidency, he had already signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program, a $787 billion stimulus bill, and an omnibus appropriations bill. In his first two years he'd go on to sign the Dodd-Frank financial reform, the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," an end to subsidies of banks for making student loans, an extension of unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut, a strengthening of the food safety system, an expansion of Americorps, a bill allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco, higher nutrition standards, and more money for school lunches — and oh yeah, the Affordable Care Act. (There's a handy list of these and other accomplishments from Obama's first term here).
You might be tempted to note that Democrats had a filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 seats in the Senate that allowed them to do that. But they only had 60 seats for seven months, between when the disputed Minnesota Senate race was finally resolved and Al Franken took office in July 2009, and when Ted Kennedy died and was replaced by Scott Brown in February 2010 after a special election. And it wasn't easy to hold all 60 votes, because they included conservatives like Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, who by then seemed to be driven only by his desire to make liberals miserable.
Nevertheless, Democrats still had more latitude than Republicans do now with their 52 Senate seats. But Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are off to an awfully slow start. Their first major initiative is looking like a disaster, and despite all those years of waiting, they don't seem to have their next moves lined up. It's possible they'll work up a head of steam and start passing one bill after another. But at the moment, they haven't made much progress on their goal of making all the Republican base's dreams come true.