Welcome to the campaign of 2012. And watch out — it’s likely to get ugly. The midterm elections have set the stage for a fresh round of political warfare leading to the elections two years hence, when the biggest prize of all — the presidency — will be in play.
The clearest lesson of the recent voting was that many Americans are fed up — with joblessness and foreclosures and deficits, with what they consider government overreach in the name of health care reform, with bailouts and takeovers they think benefit the wealthy instead of the little guy. And in not a few cases, it seems, fed up with pro-choice politicians.
Disgust turned into anger on Nov. 2, and anger turned into anti-incumbent voting that included President Barack Obama among its targets. Exit polls found a majority of voters disapproving his job performance, with many saying they meant their vote to show that.
Like other voters, Catholics swung toward the Republicans after favoring the Democrats in recent elections. According to CNN exit polling, Catholic voters nationwide backed GOP candidates 54 percent to 44 percent.
The election also produced strong showings by pro-life candidates. In Senate races, five new pro-life candidates won seats formerly held by pro-choicers, while six additional pro-lifers were elected or reelected to previously pro-life seats. In the House, the National Right to Life Committee said pro-life strength increased by over 50 votes, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), a pro-life Catholic, replaces Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pro-choice and also Catholic.
(According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, exit polls indicate Catholics made up 25 percent of all 2010 voters.)
With Republicans controlling the new House of Representatives and Democrats the White House and Senate — but the latter by a margin no longer filibuster-proof — the result is likely to be a legislative stalemate during the next two years.
House-passed Republican initiatives — repeal of health care reform, for instance — will be bottled up by Senate Democrats, supplying fodder for the 2012 campaign. GOP candidates will say the Democrats thwarted the people’s will while Democrats will say they saved the nation from Tea Party extremists.
Variations on this scenario will be played out on other issues besides health care.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a case in point. When he was running for president two years ago, Obama said he would make immigration reform a priority. In his first two years, he paid it lip service but no more.
Deadlock or compromise
Now reform is apparently on the shelf for at least the next two years. Chances are virtually nil that Congress can agree on anything, including the sort of punitive approach to undocumented aliens opposed by the Church and human rights groups.
With the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire soon, taxes are a major issue now, and this subject is expected to be the centerpiece of Congress’ pre-Christmas lame-duck session.
One possibility is a compromise continuing cuts for most taxpayers — either permanently or for the next two years — while raising taxes on the highest incomes, though less than Obama would prefer. Depending on what the lame-duck session does, taxes could be at the top of the list for the new Congress in January.
Recent lower court decisions on matters like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military, same-sex marriage, stem cell research that destroys human embryos, and Arizona’s tough new immigration law underline the significance of something else potentially affected by the election results — the selection of another justice or justices for the Supreme Court. Some or all of these issues and others commonly referred to as social issues could find their way there soon.
In his first two years, Obama got to name two new justices — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Both are considered liberal jurists and presumably pro-choice, yet both breezed through their Senate confirmation hearings with little opposition.
Given the makeup of the new Senate, another nominee or nominees with similar ideological leanings might not have such an easy time of it. At the moment, nevertheless, none of the court’s present members has indicated that he or she is planning to step down.
Inevitably, a great deal of what happens — or doesn’t happen — in Congress between now and 2012 will be strongly conditioned by calculations bearing on the elections of that year. That is obviously true of incumbents hoping to be returned to office. But it is true also of party leaders strategizing with an eye on the presidential race.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said repeatedly that the GOP’s top priority is to prevent Obama from being re-elected. But that naturally will require a candidate, and there’s no telling now who might surge out of the GOP pack and capture the nomination.
The field already is crowded, with professed or possible candidates including Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour and others. The big question mark is whether Sarah Palin will run. Some even think a man on a white horse — a military hero like Gen. David Petraeus, for example — might opt to join the field. All in all, it’s a volatile, unpredictable mix.
Equally unpredictable is how Catholics will vote in 2012. Churchgoing Catholics as a group have become reliably Republican in recent years, while Hispanic Catholics, with the exception of Cuban Americans, vote Democratic on the whole.
As for the rest — who knows? In politics, two years is a long time. Ask Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Non-Voters Trump (sidebar)
While 54 percent of Catholic voters pulled the lever for a Republican House candidate earlier this month, the midterm malaise meant nearly 60 percent of adult Catholics simply didn’t vote at all, according to a breakdown by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.