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Transatlantic Turbulence Ahead: The Implications of the US Midterms

November 10, 2022
5 min read
Photo credit: Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock.com
The 2022 US Congressional election did not produce the landslide Republican victory in the House of Representatives that political pundits foresaw.

Republicans are instead only likely to gain a thin majority. As for the Senate, it may take a December runoff election in the state of Georgia to determine control there. The outcome of the voting may still be murky, but the implications for the US’s role in the world and for the challenges facing the transatlantic relationship are already clear.

The principal takeaway is an increasingly dysfunctional American democracy. In the 12 federal elections held in the United States from 1952 through 1974, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and/or the White House changed hands from one party to another only four times. In the 12 elections between 2000 and 2022, control changed ten times. Periodic changes in democracy are certainly healthy. Revolving-door changes can lead to abrupt policy reversals that make the United States an unreliable partner.

The results also portend worsening partisan gridlock. From 1987 to 1988, Congress enacted 225 substantive laws. From 2021 to 2022, it passed 129. In the next two years, with Republicans in control of one or both houses of Congress, a budget will pass because it must. There is also likely to be agreement on defense spending. But little else of substance will get done. No wonder that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the United States no better than Italy in government functioning and that a Pew Research Center survey found that a median of only 18% of Europeans thought American democracy set a good example.

The forthcoming legislative dysfunctionality will likely lead President Joe Biden to govern by executive order. Former President George W. Bush averaged 36 such orders annually during his two terms. Barack Obama averaged 35, and Donald Trump averaged 55. Biden has so far averaged 59 and may well be compelled to issue more with a gridlocked Congress.

The one glimmer of hope for transatlantic relations is in the sanctuary of international issues to which American presidents turn in times of domestic troubles.

But policies promulgated by executive order—such as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from US power plants—can be rescinded, as Trump did in this case. So much for stability and predictability in US policy on issues of particular importance to Europeans, including climate change.

The one glimmer of hope for transatlantic relations is in the sanctuary of international issues to which American presidents turn in times of domestic troubles. They can operate there unencumbered by Congressional squabbles, and this may pose new opportunities for transatlantic cooperation on issues that do not require Congressional approval.

The 2022 election has particular implications for policy toward Ukraine and China, two key transatlantic issues.

The consequences for future American aid for Ukraine are unknown, but less generosity may be on the horizon. Statements by leading Republicans and public opinion surveys suggest that Ukrainian assistance fatigue is already growing in the United States. It could become a highly partisan issue in 2023.

“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,”  Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who aspires to be the next Speaker of the House, recently told Punchbowl News.

Trends in the views of the Republican party’s voting base are likely to reinforce such sentiment. A Wall Street Journal poll in March showed 6 percent of party adherents believed the United States was doing too much to support Ukraine. In a subsequent October survey by the paper that number had grown to 48 percent. Other studies have found similar shifts in Republicans’ views. Democratic voters remain strongly supportive of Ukrainian assistance.

The partisan differences are likely to play out amid growing pressure on Kyiv to bring the conflict to an end.

Given Republicans’ thin majority in the new House, will the party’s leadership retreat from examining assistance to Ukraine or, to hold their caucus together, double down on the implicit threat to cut funding? And what influence will Trump exert on this issue? He is widely expected to run again for president and has criticized aid to Ukraine.

Worried Congressional Democrats are already pushing for a major Ukraine assistance package before the end of the year, while they retain power. Experience suggests this may prove difficult, if only because members of Congress often want only to go home during a post-election lame-duck session. 

The partisan differences are likely to play out amid growing pressure on Kyiv to bring the conflict to an end. In October, 30 progressive Democratic lawmakers issued a letter calling for a ceasefire before hastily withdrawing it. Such sentiment is also reflected in reported White House maneuvering to push the Ukrainian leadership to drop its refusal to speak with the Kremlin, even if only to retain the moral high ground and stave off Congressional demands for negotiations.

Republican control of the House may also lead the party to follow through on a commitment to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter. Regardless of any corruption uncovered, the drumbeat of allegations could well further poison the well of public opinion toward Ukraine.

The election’s implications for US policy toward China could also be profound, in part because the issue is one of the few exempt from political polarization.

The election’s implications for US policy toward China could also be profound, in part because the issue is one of the few exempt from political polarization. Public antipathy toward China among Republicans and Democrats is already at record high levels, and McCarthy has long championed creating a select committee on China. Such a body could hold hearings on closer government supervision of investment in that country, Chinese investment in the United States, and tighter export controls on technology. Some Republicans have even called for replacing the long-standing US policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan with a hard-line “strategic clarity.” Hearings on any of these issues will further raise US-China tensions, possibly triggering a confrontation in which Washington will expect allies’ support. Much will depend on whether such a select committee develops new, more effective, bipartisan strategies for dealing with Beijing or is just another cudgel for criticizing the Biden administration.

The Democrats may have outperformed expectations in the midterms, but a newly divided government with growing dysfunctionality will exacerbate challenges for transatlantic cooperation at a time when such partnership is critical. The election is also a painful reminder that, when Americans vote, their allies are among those who must deal with the consequences.