US likely heads to divided government – DW – 11/11/2022

Republicans didn’t get the “red wave” they were hoping for, but they don’t need it. The party is well on its way to picking up the handful of seats needed to regain control of the next House of Representatives in the United States Congress.

The balance of power in the Senate depends on three states – Arizona and Nevada and Georgia, which will be decided in the December runoff. Democrats need to win at least two to maintain their current 50-50 split — two independent senators are with Democrats. In this case, only Vice President Kamala Harris’s constitutional role as the casting vote leaves them at the helm of the upper house of Congress.

Democrats are doing better than expected

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National elections are a local affair. Districts are primarily responsible for their management, while states regulate and certify them. That means there are thousands of elections in different time zones for dozens of local, state and federal offices, referendums and ballot initiatives on Election Day.

Rules and procedures vary—as do election office budgets, training, and staffing.

“They are severely under-resourced,” Joshua Sellers, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, told DW. “We think of elections as these discrete moments. But they require months, if not years, of planning in advance.”

Frustrating as it is, decentralized and redundant counting can be a bulwark against the fraud that former President Donald Trump and his election-denying allies have tried to pull off without evidence since Trump himself lost—and refused to admit— in 2020.

Many of these more extremist candidates lost and conceded to their opponents on Tuesday. There are others, including at the state level across the country, who have won, putting them in a position to influence future elections and question legitimate results.

“I would hope that any unseemly actions that they would be inclined to do would be opposed by all the good, honest public servants who work in these positions and in these offices,” Sellers, who is a research fellow on the integrity of U.S. elections at the American Academy of Berlin, he said.

Kari Lake stands in front of the microphone
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is an ally of former President Donald Trump and has cast doubt on the fairness of the vote.Image: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Divided Government: Stagnation or Stalemate?

The interim move, which won’t come into effect until the new year, seems small but potentially decisive. If the Senate remains in Democratic hands, they can retain control of committees and the legislative agenda, including reshuffles of President Joe Biden’s executive and judicial appointments. However, they will still be far short of the two-thirds vote required by many types of Senate bills.

And it’s the House of Representatives that would see real change — and threaten to freeze Biden’s legislative wish list and policy priorities. Republicans there could block Democratic initiatives and push their own, which would likely pass the Senate, or could be vetoed by Biden.

“When the country is so divided, I think the world is rightly concerned about our ability as a global unit to address some of these problems,” Sellers said, referring to transnational issues like climate change. and pandemics such as COVID-19.

House Republicans can also deny Biden funding and tie his administration to hearings and investigations. They have the power of impeachment, a political — not legal — process that can derail a president’s remaining time in office regardless of its outcome.

Global implications

Foreign policy observers say concerns about U.S. democracy and the country’s ability to govern itself have global implications, establishing a stronger link between public discontent at home and political goals abroad.

“We need to treat the American public and our representatives as if they have an absolutely legitimate role in foreign policy, and not make it seem like you have to be accepted into this professional priesthood to have a legitimate opinion,” said Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, told DW.

The clear outcome of the midterm elections alleviated some of the democratic doubts, but did not completely eliminate them. Nevertheless, there is bipartisanship on many major geopolitical issues. Both sides agreed to support Ukraine, fight against China and encourage domestic production of high-tech products such as microchips.

Differences may arise not in what is done in these areas, but in how.

“I don’t think Ukraine is yet a very polarized or political issue on the American political scene,” Michael Kimmage, a professor of history at Catholic University in Washington, told DW. “He has to be concerned that if the Republicans take over the House of Representatives, for example, it’s not that they’re going to stop supporting Ukraine, but they’re going to start attaching all kinds of other things to the appropriations bills and aid to Ukraine.”

Ukraine and its leadership has experience as fodder for US partisanship. Trump’s first impeachment centered on the former US president’s alleged pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to help defame Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for US support.

“Even a small shift in the nature of US support for Ukraine could have pretty big repercussions for the Ukrainian military,” added Kimmage, who worked in the State Department’s Russia-Ukraine division under Obama.

Similar shifts could also occur in other areas of foreign policy, which could force Biden to make difficult decisions. Critics of the administration look to its national security strategyreleased in October, as one that “pretends the US can have it all,” Kimmage said.

HIMARS rocket launcher
The U.S. is providing Ukraine with High Mobility Artillery Missile Systems (HIMARS), like the one shown in a previous U.S. exercise. Image: James Lefty Larimer/abaca/picture alliance

While voting suggests that public support for Ukraine against Russia and similarly for Taiwan against China remains high in all areas, they land more strongly in the democratic camp. Trump-style Republicans express an isolationist bent, and the party has advocated fighting record inflation and boosting a troubled economy.

“The popular opinion in the United States is that we need nation-building at home,” said Wertheim, the Carnegie fellow. “Obama has said that many times. It’s also Donald Trump.”

Republicans with more legislative power could “give more voice to these kinds of issues,” he added.

Looking to Asia, relying on Europe

Still, with fears of China dominating on both sides of the altar, any drastic withdrawal from the world stage or reduction in record high military spending in absolute terms is unlikely.

“I’m afraid one thing that a Republican Congress will mean is a sort of competitive war between the two parties to beat each other over China,” he said. “U.S. domestic politics is a factor driving strategic competition with China. That doesn’t necessarily mean good strategy.”

A US Navy sailor looks through binoculars
The US Navy frequently conducts ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the Taiwan Strait, such as here in 2020, as a show of force against China.Image: abaca/alliance image

Since the administration of Barack Obama, the USA has been trying to “pivot” to Asia, and its national security strategy has China in mind. It suggests that the US can only redirect its considerable resources if its European allies take more responsibility for their own security. Otherwise, the US risks ceding the Atlantic in exchange for the Indo-Pacific, or overstretching its capabilities to remain fully engaged in both.

This makes US national security priorities more dependent on NATO’s – and, more broadly, the European Union’s – burden-sharing commitments. The buzzword, shorthand for strengthening European countries’ own armies, has been a problem for years. Both Democrats and Republicans have reasons to encourage allies to do so.

Add Trump to the mix—whose worldview has taken a turn for the worse in the midterms, but who remains a powerful and unpredictable force as a person—and Europeans in particular will have reason to keep a close eye on American politics ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“It’s time for Europe to think about how self-sufficient it is and wants to be when it comes to its defense,” Wertheim said. “I don’t know how many more warning signs from the United States are needed to get that message across.”

Editing: Nicole Goebel


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