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In a post-midterm world, can you govern a divided nation?


Election results are still rolling 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 point of reclaiming the House, with some contests yet to be called. The fate of the Senate is also still up in the air, and it may be for some time.

In Georgia, Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are headed to a runoff. There is an emerging picture of a divided country and the possibility of another narrowly split Congress that could have serious and lasting consequences for the Biden presidency. That's something our next two guests have been thinking a lot about.

Ron Bonjean is a GOP strategist with a long career of working for Republicans in both chambers of Congress, and Jim Messina is former deputy chief of staff to President Obama. Welcome to you both.

RON BONJEAN: Thank you very much.

JIM MESSINA: Thanks for having us.

SUMMERS: So, Jim, I want to start with you here. As I look back on the Obama administration, Obamacare, of course, was a signature accomplishment, and it passed when Democrats had control of Congress. But shortly thereafter, Republicans took over the House. And President Biden may now find himself in a similar situation. If Republicans do take control of the chamber, what could that mean for Biden's legislative agenda moving forward?

MESSINA: Well, it means he's going to have to find things he can do with the Republicans. And when I was running the effort to pass Obamacare, we didn't take President Obama up to the Hill. We took Joe Biden because Joe Biden was really well-respected by both sides and could cut the deals. And you saw him 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 with the House Republicans on, and then he'll look for ways to also, you know, say there's very clear differences between the parties. So both those things I think you'll likely see from the White House in the next two years.

SUMMERS: No matter which party controls the House, it looks like we will again see a narrowly divided chamber. Ron, if Republicans do take control, what might that look like for them and Kevin McCarthy, who would be the likely House speaker in that scenario?

BONJEAN: Right. I used to work for a speaker of the House that had a five-seat majority in the 2000s when Republicans had control. And what we found are there are smaller groups of members that form that can have great leverage over whether bills come to the House floor and what they look like. You'll have smaller groups of people with louder voices and a bigger spotlight on them that will force the leadership to the table to negotiate and figure out how they can move forward. And additionally, there will be a lot of pressure on likely incoming Speaker 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 were given control of the White House; this is how we're going to lead.

SUMMERS: Jim, earlier this month, before the end of voting, President Biden said that it would be - and I'm quoting him here - "a horrible two years" if Democrats lost the House and Senate. And then he pointed out that he would have a veto pen at his disposal. To your mind, is that ultimately President Biden's sharpest tool in a narrowly divided Congress?

MESSINA: He has three tools in the narrowly divided Congress. The first is his veto pen, and he can definitely, 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 compromise, right? So those are the three things that Joe Biden really has the ability to do, and I think you'll see him exercise all three.

SUMMERS: Ron, I want to ask you, do you have any concern at all that Republican leaders like McCarthy, who could end up as House speaker, will have trouble keeping the caucus at bay given some of the members - the potential members that have been elected that will be coming into the new Congress and that that could potentially be an impediment to passing the kind of legislation that the party hopes to achieve?

BONJEAN: One of the philosophies that we had in the 2000s is that we didn't bring anything to the floor unless we had a majority of the majority of members supporting it. So if a majority of House Republicans would support a piece of legislation going to the floor, then it's going to make it there. That could mean that there will be a lot of backroom negotiating and deal-making before we get to that point. The Freedom Caucus and other members are going to be very outspoken and demanding attention and demanding they get their due. We've already seen, you know, lots of documents being put forward by the Freedom Caucus on what they are planning to do next year, which shows how forceful their loudspeaker is going to be.

SUMMERS: Inflation was a top issue heading into the midterms, and Republicans across the country blamed President Biden and Democrats for rising costs. But I'd like to ask each of you, is a divided government in some ways good for the economy?

BONJEAN: This is Ron. I'd have to say yes because one of the reasons that we're in an inflationary period is because of a large amount of government spending. With a check on the Biden administration, I don't think we're going to see the trillions of dollars going to the president's desk for his signature. So, yes, I do think it would be very healthy for the economy. The economy does need to cool off in order to bring inflation down. So more spending probably isn't the answer.

MESSINA: This is Jim. I see it a little bit differently. I think what is true is that all around the world you're seeing this inflation happen. And it's in large part because of the time we're in, post-COVID and then the Ukrainian war. It's not like these other countries aren't having the same problems. And I think this is a time when, you know, both parties need to find ways to move the economy forward.

I think the country likes divided government. As little as Ron and I want it in our personal lives, the country really likes it. And that's why, you know, seven of the last eight elections, either the White House, the House or the Senate has flipped. Voters really do want both parties to work together, and I'm hopeful that both parties will start to get that message.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, before we let you go - for each of you, you've both been in Washington for quite some time. You know a number of the players who will be governing this country in the new year with this likely divided government. What's one piece of advice you have for how to govern a divided country effectively?

MESSINA: This is Jim Messina. I think that very clear communication and making sure people understand exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it. And then second, never forget the people that elected you and what they want. And they keep saying over and over and over to both parties, we want you to work together; we want you to figure out some of these things. And, you know, my advice would be, listen to the voters. They are much smarter than they're given credit for in Washington, D.C.

BONJEAN: This is Ron Bonjean. I think that's a really great point - to keep the phone lines open, the communication lines open between the White House, the speaker and the majority leader while the politics are being played out to be able to talk to each other and figure out where there could be any points of common ground. And we have seen a number of members not win their elections because they didn't listen to the voters back home. They got caught up in the national spotlight and the attention you get from taking more hardline positions. And they aren't coming - many of them aren't coming 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 the former deputy chief of staff to President Obama. Thanks to both of you.

MESSINA: Thank you.

BONJEAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.