In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, where 24-hour cable news chatter and endless blogger blather dominate the public discourse, opinions about Washington politics are as common — and about as reliable — as a wink and a nod on Capitol Hill.
The spinmeisters of partisan Washington preach mostly to the already converted, generally with little chance of swaying public opinion or affecting actual policy. But there are still a few deeply informed, clear-eyed analysts who shoot straight about winners and losers, and are not persuaded by partisan rhetoric. When these political prognosticators have something to say, the real players — the campaign managers, Capitol Hill fundraisers, chiefs of staff and the politicians themselves — actually listen.
Stuart “Stu” Rothenberg is one such analyst. As the author and publisher of the independent Rothenberg Political Report, he has been calling Washington politics as he sees it for more than two decades. Rothenberg’s regular newspaper column in Roll Call is a mixture of sober analysis, wry wit and occasionally a bit of pique, as when he chastised a set of liberal bloggers for loudly — and wrongly — predicting a series of congressional victories that didn’t happen.
A former political science professor at Catholic University and Bucknell University, Rothenberg’s op-eds can also be found in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and elsewhere. On Election Night during the last three cycles, including the one that just concluded in November, Rothenberg was on the set of PBS NewsHour, breaking down the poll results with Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. Even Rothenberg’s competitors respect his judgment.
“I don’t think anybody reads Stuart Rothenberg’s stuff any closer than I do,” said Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, another bible for serious political handicappers in Washington. “When I find myself in agreement with him, I’m a lot more comfortable with my position. He’s a blend of academic credentials and living in the real world of politics.”
The Diplomat caught up with Rothenberg just two days after the Nov. 4 election and asked him what the Republican landslide would mean for the next Congress, the final two years of the Obama presidency and especially his foreign policy agenda.
Rothenberg said the election was a referendum on Obama but that the vote totals don’t necessarily reflect the mood of a majority of Americans. As Obama pointed out the day after the election, two-thirds of eligible voters stayed home. Turnout on Election Day was the lowest since World War II, with white and more affluent men — who are more likely to be Republican — comprising the largest numbers of voters.
“The election was overwhelmingly about the president,” Rothenberg said. “I don’t know that every voter thought about the president’s policies in detail, but it was a classic midterm election where people were unhappy. They felt angry, disappointed, afraid and not sure tomorrow is going to be better than today. They went to the polls to express that mood of dissatisfaction or worry or anger and they voted against the president’s party.”
As of press time, several races remained too close to call. Since Election Day, Republicans have picked up at least seven seats in the Senate, enough to give them control of the upper chamber of Congress for the first time in eight years. Meanwhile, House Republicans padded their majority in the lower chamber, gaining at least 12 seats. Although the GOP will control the House and Senate — and the legislative agendas — they have not accrued enough seats to override a presidential veto if they pass legislation that Obama opposes.
Rothenberg said he was surprised by how wide the margin of Republican victory was in Arkansas, Georgia and elsewhere — and how close races in Maryland and Virginia were — but that he predicted there would be a “sizeable” GOP wave, similar to what happened in 2010.
Rothenberg said opposition to the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, drove some disenchanted voters to the polls, as did voter chagrin at what has become — in part because of events out of the White House’s control — a fairly murky foreign policy.
“Voters are frustrated and the only way they could send a message is by voting against the president’s party,” he said. “This is not unusual. It happened in 2010, 2006, it happened in 1996.”
Now the onus shifts back to the GOP, which has the next two years to show Americans that it can actually govern while in power, and not just reflexively reject the president’s agenda.
Some pundits have suggested that foreign policy is one area in which Obama and congressional Republicans might be able to compromise. To be sure, Republicans will most likely try to force the president’s hand (and veto pen) on certain issues. They’ll want to slap more sanctions on Iran regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks; restore some of the sequestration spending cuts to the Defense Department; and pass the Keystone XL oil pipeline with Canada.
But potential areas of cooperation include increasing funding to combat the Ebola crisis in West Africa and granting the president fast-track authority to negotiate major free trade agreements with Asia-Pacific and European Union countries.
Rothenberg, though, isn’t so sure the two sides will come together, even on trade.
“You’d think that between the White House and Republicans there is more consensus on something like trade, although the bipartisan consensus has kind of fractured over the last 20 years,” he explained. “You have Republicans now who don’t like trade. And the president’s instincts on foreign policy and national security seem to be a long way from those of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.”
McCain, a hawkish Arizona Republican, is poised to take the chairman’s gavel on the Senate Armed Services Committee while Graham of South Carolina will take over the chairmanship of the State, Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The sweet spot on foreign policy in the Republican Party is a more muscular defense and using American power to help friends and protect friends,” Rothenberg said. “You get the sense that the president’s view is much more multinational and multilateral. He doesn’t want it to seem that the U.S. is big-footing other countries. Republicans are still much more supportive of using both American military power and economic might.”
Those muscular instincts may come in handy now that Obama has said he will seek congressional authorization for a military campaign against the Islamic State, which has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria. Even though Republicans have been clamoring for a debate on the president’s war strategy, they remain an incoherent bunch, with some hawks like McCain going so far as to press for troops in combat roles, while others side with Democrats in wanting to keep American forces out of another Mideast quagmire. The division reveals the internecine split between establishment conservatives and tea party isolationists that threatens to rear its head again in the next two years.
Having said that, Rothenberg isn’t convinced most American voters have a coherent view on foreign policy either, which makes it difficult to gauge public opinion.
“Americans don’t think a lot about foreign policy,” he said. “Their attitudes are kind of reactive and short term. If they hear some news about foreign policy, it can move opinion quickly but there is no real depth of understanding, so a different event can move things in another direction. Part of the president’s problems both on foreign policy and in general have to do simply with news.”
Rothenberg pointed out that since the launch of the Affordable Care Act, Obama has had to deal with Boko Haram in Nigeria, the two Malaysian Airlines sagas, American beheadings at the hand of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the Ebola outbreak and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling in Ukraine, among other nerve-racking global events.
“We’ve had a series of just bad news stories, some of them international, and that has created a sense that we’re no longer leading or that we’re no longer in control,” he said. “There are a lot of bad guys out there we need to stop and I think it’s hurt the president. We pulled out of Iraq and now Iraq and Syria are an absolute mess. Maybe pulling out was the right thing, but the result is that people are now wondering about the president.”
Rothenberg said he wouldn’t be surprised to hear a more hawkish Republican-controlled Congress talk tough about Putin and his bellicose stance toward Eastern Europe — and some members, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) of the Foreign Relations Committee, may push for sending weapons to Ukraine to blunt Russian aggression — but he doesn’t expect a clamor for military intervention.
“Nobody wants to divert more resources, financial or military, overseas,” he said. “When was the last time you heard somebody say we need boots on the ground? It was to fight Ebola.
“I’m not sure Congress is really ready to focus on international issues,” he added.
And Rothenberg certainly doesn’t expect Obama to suddenly bow to Republican demands in foreign policy, which, unlike domestic policy, traditionally falls under the realm of the president’s authority as the country’s commander in chief.
“I don’t think this president after six years is the kind of guy who will say, ‘Well, I gave it the good old college try, but now I’m going to change the way I operate for the final two years,’” Rothenberg said. “I just can’t imagine that.”
As for how the new Republican-controlled Congress will govern, Rothenberg said that for starters, he doesn’t expect much cooperation with Democrats, despite the post-election rhetoric in some GOP quarters.
“There is always talk of cooperation and conciliation starting anew after every election,” he said. “But in politics and in Washington, the devil is always in the details. It’s always in the fine print and colored by when and how and where the outside groups start to get involved. Anyone who has been in this town ought to be cynical about this.”
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio are both old-school Republican pragmatists who will be challenged to keep unruly, upstart tea party conservatives from derailing deals that Democrats support.
“Obviously, Boehner and McConnell are dealmakers,” Rothenberg said. “They are very conservative but they understand their role as legislators as passing legislation and negotiating differences. I think both of them have problems with their caucuses. We’ll have to see how some of these freshmen behave, particularly in the Senate.
“If you looked at those Republican primaries last cycle and saw [numerous establishment Republican incumbents] winning and said the tea party is dead, you were mistaken. They are particularly active in the House and now you have these new question marks in the Senate,” Rothenberg added. “I don’t think this is a fundamental shift in either chamber’s Republican caucus.”
In fact, tea partiers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are likely to continue their confrontational stance on government spending and other conservative priorities now that their party decisively won the last election. But Rothenberg said the question of a Republican mandate is iffy.
“I can imagine the tea party-libertarian wing of the Republican Party saying, ‘Look, we have these huge majorities now. We were blocked by [Democratic Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, but now we have the Senate … and we can stick it to the president and force the Democrats to consider our legislation,’” Rothenberg said. “That could lead to a kind of legislative arrogance that would cause the Republicans to overstep, even though Boehner and McConnell and other leadership Republicans understand that is unwise.”
Regardless of how Republicans in Congress attempt to govern, Rothenberg doesn’t see Obama as particularly humbled by the Nov. 4 election blowout — in part because as he pointed out, two-thirds of voters stayed home — nor does Rothenberg expect the president to roll over for Republicans who have been at odds with him ever since he took office.
“He thinks he knows what the views of the entire country are and he’s going to pursue the agenda he thinks is in the best interest of the country and is consistent with the views of the entire country,” Rothenberg said.
As many political observers have pointed out, Democrats have demographics on their side in 2016, when the electoral map shifts and Republicans no longer have the luxury of gerrymandered districts — devoid of minority voters — to fall back on. Republicans may still be celebrating election victories today, but looking ahead two years from now, they have their work cut out for them if they want to recapture the White House.
Rothenberg pointed out that Obama will no longer be on the ballot and noted the fleeting, sometimes brutally fickle nature of politics: “2016 will be a choice between two new nominees and presidential elections are fundamentally different than midterms,” he said. “It’s a different electorate. It will be younger and will have more color. I think 2016 looks pretty good for the Democrats and not so good for Republicans.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.