Q&A: Stanford's Gary Segura analyzes midterm election results

No peace: Political scientist Gary Segura reacts to Election Day results and looks ahead to what the political landscape will look like during the next two years.

L.A. Cicero Gary Segura

Stanford political science Professor Gary Segura

After the biggest congressional sweep since 1948, Democrats fell victim in Tuesday's midterm elections to a troubled economy and growing discontent and frustration with their party and President Obama's agenda.

Republicans won control of the House by picking up at least 60 seats, and whittled the Democratic Senate majority by at least six seats. As of Wednesday afternoon, three Senate and 11 House races were still undecided.

Stanford political science Professor Gary Segura spoke with the Stanford Report about the election results and what lies ahead for American politics and governance.

"The entire state of play now is about the degree to which Obama and the remaining Senate Democrats are willing to stand their ground as Democrats," said Segura, who is also chair of Chicana/o Studies at Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. "Looking at the past two years as prologue, that's not a big confidence builder for Democrats."

 

What happened to the groundswell of support that pushed Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to power in 2008?

They squandered it. They had the largest majority in 40 years, and they squandered it. They squandered it in part by failing to act on things that they had promised. They squandered it in part by overpromising to deliver things they couldn't. And they squandered it in part because of the president's mythological attachment to this notion of bipartisanship that the Republicans had not agreed to.

 

The presumptive House speaker, John Boehner, is putting the extension of Bush-era tax cuts and the repeal of Obama's health care reform at the top of the GOP agenda. How likely is it that Republicans will accomplish their goals?

The bad news about being in charge of the House of Representatives and nothing else is that you don't really get to do anything. So the GOP strategy will have to be one of confrontation.

They can't repeal the health care bill on their own. They can stage this very showy vote, and then it goes nowhere in the Senate. And the president wouldn't sign any form of repeal. So faced with that, the GOP will have to find ways to defund particular parts of the bill or strip out from various appropriations the monies necessary to create the infrastructure to administer it. They'll do everything they can in the form of legislative obstruction to prevent the enabling steps that have to be made. But by themselves, they can't wipe it away.

On tax cuts, I was deeply suspicious of the ability of the Democrats to resist the power of the wealthy to begin with, and now I think it will be zero. Both the president and the Senate will roll over and extend the whole nine yards, even though it's going to create a $4 trillion hole in the budget.

 

We're hearing once again from leaders of both parties pledges to find common ground and work together. Can we really expect bipartisan cooperation?

No. There might be capitulation on the part of Democrats, but there will be no meaningful cooperation.

First of all, the Republicans will not be in any mood to compromise. They've moved not one inch toward compromise while they were in the minority – why on Earth would they move toward compromise when they're in the majority?

The second thing is that if you look at the 60 people they elected in the House and the six they elected in the Senate, they're going to be a very, very conservative caucus. They don't have the membership that's willing to go along with any form of compromise, some of which is necessary just to run the nuts and bolts of government.

There could be really ugly confrontations over things like votes on raising the debt ceiling and compromise votes to get budget bills passed.

 

Three candidates with strong backing by Tea Party activists won Senate seats in Kentucky, Utah and Florida. Is the Tea Party a movement to be reckoned with, or have they done more harm than good to the GOP by backing Republican candidates who lost in Nevada, Colorado, Delaware?

The Tea Party cost the Republican Party the Senate. In the absence of the Tea Party, you would get a Senate majority.

Still, I think they could make life very difficult for establishment Republicans. They're going to refuse to compromise on some votes. You can also imagine a lot of internal conflict within the various caucuses. You're not going to see any of that right now because everybody's happy at the party. But come see me in two months and tell me what it looks like. In the long run, there's going to be some significant ideological confrontation.

 

How has this midterm set the stage for the 2012 general election?

It's hard to say. There's good science to suggest that presidential popularity goes up when he faces an opposition Congress. It could be that Obama does better. There should be some modest level of economic recovery, at the very least. That will help the president. And the internal politics of the GOP makes you wonder which candidate will step forward and will be able to oppose Obama, and I'm not sure who that is. Even though it's very bleak for Democrats today, it doesn't strike me that it's very bleak for Democrats in 2012.