November 3, 2010

'Reading the Tea Leaves'

The following article was published by ANI on November 3, 2010. The original version of the article is reproduced below.

WASHINGTON—With the final results of the U.S. midterm elections trickling in on November 3 morning, there appear to be few surprises. The Republican Party has swept back to control the House of Representatives after four years. The Democrats, meanwhile, have retained a slim majority in the Senate, although they have lost their once sizeable lead. More than half of the fifty states also saw gubernatorial elections that went very much as expected, primarily in the Republicans’ favour. Republicans, including many candidates supported by the grassroots Tea Party movement, performed particularly well in the industrial and farming heartland, although less so in the northeast and west coast. Polls indicate that Republican candidates benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ handling of the economy over the past two years, with some voters specifically motivated by the government’s healthcare, education and immigration policies.

What impact these election results will have on the political orientation of the United States over the next two years is as yet uncertain. Three possibilities stand out as broad potential outcomes. The first is that a reinvigorated Republican Party will attempt to resolutely reverse or oppose key policies of the Obama Administration. Such policies might include legislation pertaining to healthcare, financial regulation or climate change. Although a Democratic Senate and the president himself would likely block such activism on the part of House Republicans, this would result in sharp partisan divides in Washington and a relative absence of much forward movement until the next election in two years.

A second possibility is that the Republicans and Democrats attain a modus vivendi, and opt to compromise on key policy issues, understanding full well that each party needs the support of the other. Cooperation might certainly prevail on a host of foreign policy issues on which there are few real differences between Republicans and Democrats. These might include the prosecution of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process, or reactions to perceived Chinese or Iranian assertiveness.

Third, it could be that the Republican Party, which will have to reflect a wide range of views after these elections, loses its cohesion and thereby strengthens the Democrats’ ability to enact certain reforms by weaning support from wayward opposition members. After suffering badly in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the small Republican minority in Congress successfully closed ranks. After this year’s successes, they may no longer feel as motivated by a shared sense of siege. Foreign policy as a whole is unlikely to be significantly affected by Tuesday’s election results. It was not a major issue during these elections, and with the Democrats maintaining their control of the upper house, the key leadership positions on the relevant Senate committees will not change.

As President Obama prepares to depart for India, it is therefore unclear what, if any, effect the election results will have on relations with that country. With the state of the economy of primary importance, the level of protectionism in Congress is one factor to which Indian businesses should be paying attention. Democrats, led by the president, regularly criticised U.S. big business for supporting, or being supported by, foreign interests. Television advertisements paid for by liberal advocacy group and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accused candidates Mark Kirk and Bobby Schilling, both Republicans running in Illinois, of supporting tax breaks for businesses operating in countries like India, and therefore being responsible for the loss of American jobs. However, there is little indication that the new cohort of Republicans in Congress, whose members often betray a proclivity for isolationism, will necessarily be more sympathetic to international business interests.

Among members of Congress to find themselves in key leadership positions, Eric Cantor, expected to become House Majority Leader, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will likely head the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will be key figures in passing legislation related to foreign policy and ensuring funds for foreign assistance. Veteran Republican Congressman Dan Burton may take over chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Only last month, Burton, who achieved considerable notoriety in India for his consistent criticism of the country, argued in favor of U.S. intervention in Kashmir. Finally, Tuesday saw the election of Indian-American Nikki Haley – a darling of the Tea Party movement – to the governorship of South Carolina. Haley joins Bobby Jindal of Louisiana as a young Republican Indian-American governor of a conservative, southern state. The possible effect of their successes on the politically active Indian-American community is another factor that could be of consequence to U.S.-India relations over the coming years.