By Aaron Shuchman
New York City, New York
With the projects of numerous news outlets, as well as concessions by the losing candidates, Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will win Georgia’s twin runoff races for the United States Senate. With their victories, the Senate will be split 50-50, enabling Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to break ties and providing the Democratic Party with a narrow advantage in the Senate during the 117th Congress. This will be the first time that the Democratic Party will have unified control of the executive and legislative branches of government since President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and this is the first time that any party has had unified control of government since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Though the narrow “51-50” advantage may be useful in helping the Democratic Party confirm cabinet nominees and judges, as well as passing long term legislative goals, how the Democratic majority behaves will be extremely important in terms of the level of polarization in government, and will have consequences electorally as well.
In the previous two-year periods where a party controlled the presidency as well as the two houses of Congress, a significant legislative achievement has usually followed. After the 2008 election, where Democrats won unified control of government, Obama and Democratic congressional leaders worked together to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They also worked together to pass massive economic stimulus and financial bailouts following the financial crisis of 2008. After the 2016 election, where Republicans gained control of the presidency in addition to their existing Congressional majorities, Trump and Republican congressional leaders passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which lowered the corporate tax rate and eliminated the individual mandate from Obamacare. The GOP controlled government also attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare, but owing to their narrow Senate majority, the legislation did not make it past the Senate.
Though the leaders of a party that has just taken control of the presidency and Congress may be tempted to view that election as a sweeping mandate for their agenda, Democratic political leaders would be wise to look at history when considering what legislation to pursue over the next two years. Although Obamacare has become a generally popular program, it was initially extremely unpopular, as its passage led to the Tea Party movement in the Republican Party, and in the 2010 midterm elections, the Republican Party gained 6 seats in the Senate and 63 seats in the House of Representatives, reclaiming control of the House. In 2018, after passing the generally unpopular Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Republican Party lost upward of 40 seats in the House and were relegated to the minority, with Nancy Pelosi gaining the speaker’s gavel. Though the Democratic Party is likely to pursue legislation like gun control or voting rights protection, which will not be incredibly polarizing, there are members of the party’s left flank that has broader ambitions. Democratic activists have called for justices to be added to the Supreme Court, the abolition of the legislative filibuster, the Green New Deal as well as Medicare for All and a host of other progressive priorities. Although centrist Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said that he opposes the abolition of the filibuster as well as the defunding of the police, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be the deciding vote against a unified Democratic caucus or if he will fall in line under party pressure.
The next two years will be critical in shaping the country’s priorities and determining whether or not the level of polarization in the country increases. A Democratic government that pursues common sense priorities and does not pursue drastic changes is likely to bring the temperature down in American politics and provide a new level of bipartisanship and cooperation. However, a Democratic government that seeks radical change is likely to further inflame tensions between the political parties and potentially cause electoral consequences.