WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans, for all their griping, apparently really do prefer their government deeply divided and dysfunctional.
President Barack Obama will remain in office for another four years, Democrats will continue to control the Senate by roughly the same small margin while Republicans maintained their grip on the House.
And the same difficult problems that faced the country Tuesday afternoon — the automatic cuts known as the sequester, expiration of the Bush tax cuts, a looming debt ceiling increase — will still be there when they wake up Wednesday morning, no closer to resolution.
"What comes around, usually goes around. Since the new Congress is basically the same as the last one, then you are likely to have the same gridlock,” veteran GOP operative Ron Bonjean acknowledged Tuesday night.
“The country is unmistakably divided," one senior Senate GOP leadership aide said. "It's like a self perpetuating problem."
To be sure, Democrats’ night was better than Republicans: Obama bested Mitt Romney for the White House, and in the Senate not only did they fend off a Republican bulrush that two years ago was expected to overwhelm them, they snatched two seats from the GOP in Massachusetts and Indiana.
And while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fell well short of her hope of retaking the speakership in the House, her party still clawed back a handful of seats from Speaker John Boehner’s strong majority.
Which is all well and good when it comes to winning elections.
But when it comes to governing a country facing a series of economic crises one worst than the next, it could mean a recipe for, well, at least two more years of gridlock and partisanship.
Indeed, just asking Democrats and Republicans what, exactly, needs to be done to break the logjam in Washington will get you wildly different prescriptions.
Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Reid, argued that while Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may see the need for compromise, its unclear whether they can do it.
“The problem ... will be in how both thread the needle, because the Speaker may have to worry even more about his right flank given the fact Paul Ryan will assume a greater role, while Senator McConnell, a cautious politician by nature, is going to have to make sure he doesn’t get a primary challenger in 2 years and deal with the push from the strong right wing contingent in his own caucus,” Manley warned.
Republicans, however, see it very differently. Boehner has already staked out a hard line position on taxes, telling Politico this week that he will not only reject Democrats’ demands to increase taxes on those who make $250,000 — but would even reject higher taxes on millionaires.
“We’ll have as much of a mandate as he will — if that happens — to not raise taxes. He knows what we can do and what we can’t do — I’ve been very upfront with him about it going back over the last year and a half,” Boehner said.
And Republicans insisted that it’s on Democrats, in particular Reid and Obama, to demonstrate a good faith effort to compromise with Republicans, not the other way around.
“What we learned in 2011 is that none of this stuff is possible without the executive branch” actively engaging with Republicans, the Senate leadership aide said.
“It’s incumbent on him to have ideas and leadership and engagement with Congress,” the aide said, insisting that that will require “a major course correction, and not one they’ve had any experience with so far.”
Manley, acknowledged Obama will need to show more leadership.
The President is going to have to play a more forceful role in the legislative process. That doesn’t mean he needs to put out a new detailed long range plan but he does need to make clear he is ready to personally begin negotiating immediately with the congressional leadership,” Manley said.
But in the same breath, Manley warned that “If he does so, Republican leaders will need to decide whether to abandon the Tea Party and work together to address this nation's challenges.”
And other Democrats downplayed the chances that a more congenial approach to Congress by Obama will result in any movement.
“You’ve got John Boehner saying he’s not going to raise taxes on millionaires,” said Rodell Mollineau, President of American Bridge 21st Century.
“If you’re already got big, bright lines in the sand … President Obama can send John Boehner a bottle of scotch a week and its not going to help.”
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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