Washington: It is hard to exaggerate just how unloved and how ineffective the current Congress, which faces midterm elections on Tuesday in the United States, has been.
The metrics are there, of course. This Congress has passed less legislation than any other in modern American history – around a tenth of that enacted by the infamous “do-nothing” Congress of 1947-1949.
The American people know how badly they have been let down, too. Though US President Barack Obama remains deeply unpopular, with a job approval of around 42 per cent, he is streets ahead of Congress, which enjoys the approval of just 13.4 per cent of its citizens, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average.
There is little good news for either of the major parties. A deep analysis of voter dissatisfaction by Pew Research – part of a year-long study – published last week shows the electorate is profoundly disappointed with both.
“The GOP’s favourable ratings are underwater: 39 per cent of registered voters view the party favourably, while 55 per cent have an unfavourable impression,” says the Pew report. “Favourable ratings for the Democratic Party, while better than the GOP’s, are hardly robust: As many voters view the party unfavourably (48 per cent) as favourably (47 per cent).”
The same research found the Democratic Party was considered more empathetic, more willing to compromise, more honest and ethical and more understanding of normal people’s concerns.
Not surprisingly, Republicans led on economics, terrorism and government management. Either way Rand Paul, the Republican senator seen as a key contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination, was moved to comment: “The Republican Party brand sucks and so people don’t want to be a Republican.”
Despite all this, most analysts believe the Republican Party has a far greater chance of winning a majority in the Senate than Democrats do of maintaining control, just as they believe Republicans will extend their lead in the House of Representatives.
To understand this apparent anomaly, and to understand why Americans have been subjected to campaign so devoid of policy debate that some have labelled it “the Seinfeld election” – an election about nothing – you need to understand two realities of the American system.
Firstly, Republicans hold a natural advantage in midterm elections, when turnout is lower. Without the excitement generated by a bid for the White House, voter turnout tends to be older, whiter, richer and better educated than in presidential elections. These are demographic categories that favour Republicans. While African-American turnout is expected to remain high, Latino turnout is expected to be far lower than in 2012.
This trend is exacerbated this year, a midterm during the President’s second term. Though Mr Obama is not on the ballot, the midterms inevitably become a chance for an electorate to vent dissatisfaction at the President six years into his time in office.
Secondly, the electoral map benefits the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate. Six years after the Democratic surge in 2008, the party simply finds itself defending more seats than Republicans, many of them in conservative states such as South Dakota and Arkansas.
Aware of the current Congress’s historic lack of achievement, the Republican Party is not seeking a mandate – rather it is seeking to ride these two trends, coupled with dissatisfaction with Mr Obama, into control.
And with Mr Obama effectively sidelined from the campaign, the Democratic Party has proven unwilling or unable to rally around a positive platform and is instead running a series of skirmishes with Republican challengers rather than a cohesive campaign.
The result has been depressing to watch.
Rather than engaging in the issues Americans care about – as Pew research demonstrates – such as taxation reform and growing inequality, and reform of a broken immigration system, both parties have sought to harness general disquiet and fear, especially over the rise of the so-called Islamic State and the spread of Ebola.
As far back as August, incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas, trailing in most polls, accused his Republican opponent, Tom Cotton, of exposing the country to Ebola by voting against a 2013 bill that included money to respond to pandemics. However, Mr Cotton, a member of the House of Representatives, did vote for the final version of the bill that eventually became law.
Republican congressman Robert Goodlatte told Fox News that Mr Obama plans to “import” Ebola patients into the United States, though he did not provide any evidence, nor explain why the President would do such a thing. A new ad from the Republican National Committee even accuses Mr Obama of wanting to bring terrorists into the United States: “ISIS gaining ground. Terrorists committing mass murder. Ebola inside the US. Americans alarmed about national security. What’s President Obama doing? Making plans to bring terrorists from Guantanamo to our country . . . November 4, Obama’s policies are on the ballot. Vote to keep terrorists off US soil. Vote Republican.”
A handful of candidates have enthusiastically woven a tapestry of paranoia over both Ebola and undocumented immigration. Both Pat Roberts, the Kansas incumbent Republican fighting a tough senatorial challenge, and Thom Thillis, challenging a Democrat in North Carolina, have declared their plan to tackle Ebola is to seal the southern border.
Distance from the border has not been an impediment to such claims. Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who is now running for Senate in New Hampshire – nearly 4000 kilometres from the border – has declared people with Ebola will march north, though there have been no cases of the disease south of the border.
“if Mitt [Romney] was the president right now,” then he could “guarantee you we would not be worrying about Ebola right now,” Mr Brown said.
Many Democrats have distinguished themselves throughout the campaign mainly by distancing themselves from Mr Obama and his signature healthcare reform.
Kentucky Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is seeking to oust the man who will become the Senate leader should Republicans win control, has repeatedly refused to even confirm that she has voted for Mr Obama.
Rather than answering the question she has instead evoked the sanctity of the ballot box, all the while declaring herself to be a “Clinton Democrat through and through”.
Mr Obama, who has obligingly absented himself from most the campaign – outside of relentless fundraising – accidentally made Mrs Grimes’ position more difficult early last month when he declared in a speech: “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: [my] policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”
Within hours of the comments they were on high rotation in Republican advertisements.
Without a universal Republican bogeyman to scare its voters to the polls with, many Democrats have campaigned against the notorious GOP mega-donors known as the Koch brothers, rather than against actual candidates.
While the Koch brothers – billionaire libertarian industrialists – have undoubtedly channeled a river of cash into Republican campaigns across the country, a recent analysis by Politico found the 15 top Democrat-aligned independent political action committees have outraised the 15 top Republican ones $453 million to $289 million in the 2014 cycle.
Perhaps the nadir of this lacklustre campaign was what has, with depressing inevitability, become known as “Fangate”.
Fangate erupted at the beginning of the second debate between the Florida Governor (these midterm elections involve 36 state gubernatorial races along with all of the House of Representatives and around a third of the Senate) Rick Scott and his challenger, Charlie Crist. The debate began with neither candidate on stage and two panicked hosts blathering about the odd situation they found themselves in.
Within a minute, Mr Crist – himself a former governor and former Democrat – bounded on stage, looking sprightly with his trademark white hair and orange skin.
It turns out he has a tendency to break out in Nixonian sweats under TV lights and his team had installed a little electronic fan in his podium. Mr Scott’s team declared this to be in clear contravention of the rules, and to Mr Crist’s obvious delight the governor pouted somewhere off stage for a full seven minutes before being coaxed onto the dais.
There has been little reporting of the substance of their debate.
This is not to say that the two parties do not have plans for the coming term, nor that American citizens are unaware of the pressing need for activist government.
Both parties are positioning for the 2016 presidential election. The White House is desperate to shore up Mr Obama’s legacy, particularly by further entrenching the healthcare changes, which are so far proving more successful than their many supporters dared hope 12 months ago.
Both parties want to see immigration reform passed – Democrats to entrench their advantage among the growing Hispanic population that helped Mr Obama win two elections, moderate Republicans to try to build bridges with it.
But there is little reason to believe a new Congress will overcome the divide that has neutered the last, and the one before it. Speaking with Fairfax earlier this year, Larry Sabato, one of the nation’s leading political scientists, said the likely outcome – a Republican-controlled Senate combating a Democratic White House – would only lead to more gridlock.
Worse, as the political logjam continues, the two near-equal partisan camps that America’s parties have divided the nation into further entrench themselves.
By running almost entirely negative campaigns, neither party has made any attempt to reach out to swinging voters or their opponents – rather they have sought only to agitate the partisans in their own base.
Those who vote on Tuesday will on the whole be angrier and more partisan than those who stay at home, Pew’s director of political research Carroll Doherty told Fairfax last week.
“Those who are consistently conservative and liberal, who together make up only about one-in-five (22 per cent) in the general public, make up 36 per cent of those most likely to vote,” his research reveals. “By contrast, those with mixed opinions will be only 24 per cent of the electorate, although they constitute 39 per cent of the general public.”
As a result, despite spending more money than during any other midterm campaign in history, opinion polls have barely moved and commentary is despondent.
Meanwhile generations of legislators of both sides of the aisle who grew up in an era when compromise was the norm and passing good law was the aim of congressional politics are retiring.
Last Sunday the New York Times noted that in its dying days the Republican-dominated House of Representatives chose not to deal with immigration or infrastructure spending, but instead voted to block consumer financial protection regulation, kept secret donations flowing and even filibustered a bill to improve veterans’ benefits in favour of deficit reduction.
“Let’s be clear: Blame for this sorry state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of the people running the show—the Barack Obamas, Mitch McConnells, Harry Reids, John Boehners and Nancy Pelosis of the world. Toss in Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus and his Democratic counterpart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, too,” wrote the libertarian commentator Nick Gillespie in a bitter piece for the Daily Beast last week.
“But ultimately the responsibility—or at least the price tag—lies with citizens. We deserve better, yes, but nothing will change until we demand better.”