For McConnell, the task of taming the tea-partyers (or, if you prefer, channeling their energies) in the Senate will be somewhat easier, if only because their numbers there will be so much smaller. With the defeat of Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O’Donnell, only five new senators will arrive on Capitol Hill with the whiff of Earl Grey about them: Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey, and, perhaps most portentously, Rand Paul.
Even so, the pressure on McConnell from his party’s anti-Establishment flank may in some ways be greater than that on Boehner—because of the presence of Jim DeMint. More than anyone, the junior senator from South Carolina is the animating spirit of the tea party. Having broken with long-standing tradition and encouraged primary challenges this year to sitting members of his own party, he has already made clear that he has no intention of backing away from his crusade for ideological purity. The morning after the election, he published an open letter in The Wall Street Journal that was a barely veiled threat to McConnell’s status as minority leader: “Tea-party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country—not be co-opted by the club,” he wrote. “So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.”
The fight DeMint is promising may prove bloody and protracted, but on any number of issues, it could erupt rather quickly. The tea-partyers campaigned on drastic spending cuts; Boehner and McConnell will be hard-pressed to deliver or even come down in favor of major reductions without risking alienating huge numbers of voters. In the likely event that a stalemate arises between the White House and Republicans over the budget, many tea-partyers are already champing at the bit for a government shutdown; but Boehner and McConnell, recalling how well that worked out for Gingrich and Dole, will be loath to let it happen. And then there’s the matter of the debt ceiling, which the country will run up against sometime early next year, with a congressional vote required to extend it. The tea-partyers will not come to that position without a horrendous hoedown. Getting them there—and thus averting a default, and with it the risk of another global financial crisis—will test Boehner and McConnell in ways that neither fully grasps today.
In all of this, Obama will find opportunities to exploit. If he and his team handle it adroitly, they stand a chance of forcing the Republican leaders into a series of devil’s choices between, on the one hand, making compromises that exacerbate intra-party tensions and, on the other, satisfying the appetites of the ascendant wing of the GOP by coming across as ideological extremists to the vast American middle. The degree of adroitness required will be enormous, to be sure. Unlike Clinton, Obama will not be blessed with a foe as prone to massive overreach—and to indiscipline, messianism, and just plain silliness—as Gingrich was in 1995. The president will need to be clever, flexible, patient, and tough in roughly equal measure.
Does Obama have the requisite supply of those skills? We are all about to find out. His performance last week was far from perfect. Unlike Clinton in 1994, who emerged from his and his party’s drubbing and announced the next day, “They [the voters] sent us a clear message—I got it,” Obama said nothing quite that blunt. Though he took responsibility for having failed to make more progress in reinvigorating the economy or changing the culture of Washington, he refused to concede that his specific policy choices had been repudiated. “I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach” was his preferred, and self-servingly slippery, formulation.
What people are prone to forget, however, is that in fact it took Clinton the better part of a year to regain his footing. And though part of that process involved introspection and grand-scale strategic retooling, an even larger part was forged in reaction to the opposition and its follies. With the speed at which politics now moves, Obama won’t have as long as Clinton did to get his act together. But nor will Boehner and McConnell theirs—and the ground beneath their feet is even more unstable than it was back in the Newt old days.