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Midterm Elections: Where Do We Go From Here
UC San Diego Political Scientist Gary Jacobson Analyzes Impact of Vote

By Ioana Patringenaru | November 13, 2006

Gary Jacobson
Gary Jacobson

An increase in the federal minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform are much more likely now that Democrats control both houses of Congress after the 2006 midterm elections, UCSD political scientist Gary Jacobson said last week.

Democrats took back the House, which they had lost during the 1994 Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich. They gained 28 seats, and are now leading Republicans by 229 or 230 to 196 seats, depending on who is counting. Democrats also were able to secure a one-seat majority in the Senate Thursday, after former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb defeated Republican incumbent George Allen in Virginia. The Democratic majority will include Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who ran without party affiliation, and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Voters were unhappy with the president because of the war in Iraq and unhappy with Congress because of several scandals, Jacobson said. “That’s a double whammy,” he added. As a result, President Bush now will only be able to govern in the domestic arena by negotiating with the Democratic Party, Jacobson predicted.

Jacobson, one of the nation’s leading experts on Congress, answered questions for This Week@UCSD about the elections. Here is what he had to say on a few key topics.

Iraq

The question is whether President Bush is going to stick with Iraq as long as he can, Jacobson said. A bi-partisan, independent commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton will soon make recommendations, which could determine the future of the U.S. strategy in Iraq. But so far, the president has been extremely stubborn on the issue, Jacobson said. “I don’t see him backing down,” he added.

Asked whether the Democrats had a strategy for Iraq, Jacobson pointed out that Congressional parties don’t make foreign policy.  They react to what the president is doing. But they can try to hold him more accountable, especially when it comes to spending. Jacobson said he expected Democrats to hold hearings on the conduct of the war. “If they are smart, they will go after things the administration has done that are obviously wrong,” such as waste and corruption, he said. But they will get into more trouble if they start investigating what President Bush knew about weapons of mass destruction before going to war. In a way, it’s water under the bridge, added Jacobson. In addition, Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation makes the president more vulnerable to criticism. “He can’t just beat up on his secretary of defense,” Jacobson said.

Policy initiatives

The change-over in the House will have a major impact, Jacobson predicted.

Democrats want to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, Jacobson said. They could garner enough votes to override a potential presidential veto. “It’s hard to vote against that,” he said.

One question is what will happen to the Bush tax cuts and whether they will be extended. The Democrats want to extend provisions that benefit the middle class, but not the upper class, Jacobson also said.

Meanwhile, Democrats and President Bush could join forces to craft comprehensive immigration reform. Taking a hard line on that issue hasn’t helped the Republicans, Jacobson said. Also, the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border becomes less likely under a Democratic majority. Congress approved construction of the fence earlier this year, but didn’t fund it fully.

As the majority party in the Senate, Democrats also will be able to block judicial nominees they don’t like, Jacobson predicted. But the Senate’s situation will remain unstable. If a Senator dies, the governor in that state will get to choose their successor and decide the fate of the Senate majority as well.

The 2008 presidential elections

The midterm elections knocked off Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. George Allen of Virginia as potential candidates after they were defeated. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts also lost steam after what he claimed was a botched joke about President Bush’s intellect and the war in Iraq. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee had already been weakened. “In a sense, it started to clear the table,” Jacobson said. The big beneficiaries of this election are Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who looks stronger now that Allen is out. Sen. Barak Obama, of Illinois also made a splash but is fairly inexperienced. “I can imagine him as vice-presidential nominee,” Jacobson said. For both parties, the 2008 election is still up in the air. But rivals to Allen, Santorum and Kerry have all been strengthened.

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