NPR’s Juana Summers talks with Jim Messina, former White House deputy chief of staff to President Obama, and Republican strategist Ron Bonjean about how to govern a divided country after the midterms.
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
The election results keep coming in and we don’t yet know who will control Congress for the next two years. Republicans have made gains but are still short at this stage of the House clawback, with some contests yet to be held. The fate of the Senate is also still up in the air, and perhaps for some time.
In Georgia, Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are heading for a runoff. There is an emerging picture of a divided country and the possibility of another tightly divided Congress that could have serious and lasting consequences for the Biden presidency. This is something that our next two guests thought a lot about.
Ron Bonjean is a GOP strategist with a long career working for Republicans in both houses of Congress, and Jim Messina is President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff. Welcome to you two.
RON BONJEAN: Thank you very much.
JIM MESSINA: Thank you for having us.
SUMMERS: So, Jim, I want to start with you. When I think back to the Obama administration, Obamacare, of course, was a landmark achievement, and it passed when the Democrats had control of Congress. But soon after, Republicans took control of the House. And President Biden could now find himself in a similar situation. If Republicans take control of the chamber, what might that mean for Biden’s legislative agenda?
MESSINA: Well, that means he’s going to have to find things he can do with the Republicans. And when I was leading the effort to pass Obamacare, we didn’t take President Obama to the Hill. We took Joe Biden because Joe Biden was highly respected on both sides and could get the deals done. And you saw it do that last year with the infrastructure bill, which passed with bipartisan support. So he’s going to look for those things that he can work on with the House Republicans, and then he’s going to look for ways to also say, you know, there are very clear differences between the parties. So I think you’ll probably see those two things from the White House over the next two years.
SUMMERS: Regardless of which party controls the House, it looks like we will see a tightly divided chamber again. Ron, if the Republicans take control, what might it look like for them and Kevin McCarthy, who would likely be the Speaker of the House in this scenario?
BONJEAN: It’s true. I used to work for a Speaker of the House who had a five-seat majority in the 2000s when Republicans were in control. And what we’ve found is that there are smaller groups of members that form that can have a big influence on whether bills make it to the House and what they look like . You will have smaller groups of people with stronger voices and a greater spotlight on them that will force leaders to negotiate and figure out how they can move forward. And moreover, there will be a lot of pressure on future President McCarthy to start using the House as a loudspeaker for the 2024 election to show America, this is what we would do differently if we gave us control of the White House; that’s how we’re going to lead.
SUMMERS: Jim, earlier this month, before the end of the vote, President Biden said it would be – and I quote him here – “two horrible years” if the Democrats lost the House and the Senate. And then he specified that he would have a veto pen at his disposal. In your opinion, is this ultimately President Biden’s sharpest tool in a tightly divided Congress?
MESSINA: He has three tools in the tightly divided Congress. The first is his veto pen, and he can certainly, you know, express his displeasure. The second thing he can do is executive orders, and that’s what President Trump did after he lost the House. That’s what President Obama did. And the third thing is a compromise, isn’t it? So those are the three things that Joe Biden really has the ability to do, and I think you’ll see him doing all three.
SUMMERS: Ron, I want to ask you, are you at all concerned that Republican leaders like McCarthy, who could become Speaker of the House, will have a hard time keeping the caucus at bay given some of the members – potential members who have been elected official who will enter the new Congress and that this could potentially be an obstacle to the passage of the type of legislation that the party hopes to obtain?
BONJEAN: One of the philosophies we had in the 2000s was that we didn’t contribute anything to the debate unless we had a majority of the majority of the members supporting it. So if a majority of House Republicans would support a bill that was introduced, then it would get there. This could mean that there will be a lot of negotiation and behind-the-scenes dealings before it gets to that point. The Freedom Caucus and other members are going to be very outspoken and demanding attention and demanding that they get their due. We have already seen, you know, many documents presented by the Freedom Caucus on what they plan to do next year, which shows how powerful their speaker will be.
SUMMERS: Inflation was a major issue heading into the midterms, and Republicans across the country blamed President Biden and Democrats for rising costs. But I would like to ask each of you, is a divided government in some way good for the economy?
BONJEAN: It’s Ron. I would have to say yes because one of the reasons we are in a period of inflation is because of a high amount of government spending. With control over the Biden administration, I don’t think we’ll see the trillions of dollars going to the president’s desk for his signature. So yes, I think it would be very healthy for the economy. The economy needs to calm down to bring inflation down. So more spending is probably not the answer.
MESSINA: It’s Jim. I see it a little differently. I think what is true is that all over the world you see this inflation happening. And a lot of that is because of the time we’re in, post-COVID and then the war in Ukraine. It’s not as if these other countries don’t have the same problems. And I think this is a time when, you know, both sides have to find ways to move the economy forward.
I think the country likes divided governments. As little as Ron and I wanted in our personal lives, the country really does. And that’s why, you know, seven of the last eight elections, whether it’s for the White House, the House or the Senate, have flipped. Voters really want both parties to work together, and I hope both parties will start to get that message.
SUMMERS: I’d like to ask you, before I let you go – for each of you, you’ve both been in Washington for a while. You know a number of players who will rule this country in the new year with this likely divided government. What advice do you have for how to effectively govern a divided country?
MESSINA: This is Jim Messina. I think it’s about really clear communication and making sure people understand exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And second, never forget the people who elected you and what they want. And they keep saying to both sides, we want you to work together; we want you to understand some of these things. And, you know, my advice would be to listen to the voters. They’re a lot smarter than you think in Washington, D.C.
BONJEAN: It’s Ron Bonjean. I think that’s a really good point – to keep the phone lines open, the lines of communication open between the White House and the president and the majority leader as politics plays out to be able to talk to each other and figure out where he there could be any point of common ground. And we’ve seen a number of members not win their elections because they didn’t listen to the voters back home. They found themselves in the national spotlight and the attention you get from taking tougher positions. And they don’t come – a lot of them don’t come back. So I think it’s really important to stay in touch with your elected leaders, with – you know, to find out where the pressure points are to get things done.
SUMMERS: Ron Bonjean is a Republican strategist and Jim Messina is President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff. Thanks to you two.
MESSINA: Thank you.
BONJEAN: Thank you very much.
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