By Ramesh Ponnuru / Bloomberg Opinion
Every new president in the last 30 years has come to office with his party holding a majority in both houses of Congress. Three of those four new presidents lost that power quickly. One or both houses of Congress flipped to the opposition two years later as voters reacted to what they considered the president’s excesses. The exception was George W. Bush, whose party lost Congress six years after his election, a delay that probably had to do with the shock of the September 11 attacks in his first year in office.
With the exception of that period, we have not had more than two years of consecutive unified control since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Modern Americans have not seemed to like one-party government; or, at least, the median modern American hasn’t.
Most of the polling suggests that Joe Biden will be our next president, but gives Republicans a better chance of holding the Senate. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa are in tight races; if they keep their seats, Republicans will probably retain the majority. There is a possibility, then, that Biden becomes the first president since 1989 to take office with a hostile Senate majority.
Split control, combined with today’s level of polarization, could create serious problems: How long would it take for Biden to get his Cabinet confirmed if Mitch McConnell stays majority leader?
But the election of Biden alongside a Republican Senate could also end the cycle of partisan overreach followed by backlash that we have gone through so many times over the last generation. Expanding the Supreme Court to put more liberals on it would be off the table. So, probably, would be ending the Hyde Amendment to allow taxpayer funding of abortion. There would be no return to fining people for not buying health insurance.
In all of these cases, a Republican Senate would spare Americans from policies that, according to polls, they don’t want. (Biden might not really want some of them either.) It would also likely mean the death of some of Biden’s ambitious health-care ideas, which are more popular when briefly described but have the potential to push people out of insurance plans they like. Bipartisan negotiations over issues such as covid relief might well bear more fruit if McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are dealing with Biden instead of the unpredictable Trump.
The former vice president would, however, be able to make good on his central campaign promise, the one that both he and a decisive bloc of voters seem to care most about: the promise not to be Donald Trump.
Biden is simultaneously running on “the most progressive platform of any major party nominee in history” (as former President Obama describes it) and “a return to normalcy” (as a progressive journalist puts it). A Republican Senate would mean voters got the part of that package that they want.
One might think that this outcome would appeal particularly to those Republicans who left the party out of disgust with Trump. But some of them instead believe that Republicans must lose at every level as punishment for going along with Trump, and to create a new, de-Trumpified GOP.
“Burning down” the Republican Party in the hope that something better will rise from its ashes is doubly mistaken. It ignores the collateral damage: A lot of left-wing policies would get enacted in the process of this rebuilding. And any viable center-right party in the U.S. is going to be made up mostly of people — voters, staffers, politicians — who made their peace with Trump. There are too few Americans who are neither part of the progressive coalition nor Trump supporters for it to be any other way.
Republicans have not exactly been profiles in courage with respect to Trump: Many of them have bitten their tongues instead of saying what they know to be true about him.
But some perspective is in order. The key decision Senate Republicans made was whether to support Trump’s removal from office after the House impeached him. There was a strong case for removal. But many Republicans sincerely believed the central argument against impeachment: that a president should not be removed unless he has committed a crime such as perjury.
That argument may be mistaken, but it has been made every time in our history that a president has faced impeachment. Only one senator in U.S. history, Mitt Romney, has voted to remove a president of his own party.
There would be a certain justice for Republicans in losing the Senate after going all in for Trump. But voters might find themselves, in short order, coming to regret some of the results.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.