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How the 'Seinfeld election' could actually make a difference

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said his decision to run for the Republican nomination will be based on two things -- his family and whether he can lift America's spirit. His father and brother formerly served as President. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said his decision to run for the Republican nomination will be based on two things -- his family and whether he can lift America's spirit. His father and brother formerly served as President.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger says some argue this year's election is about nothing
  • She says Republicans have a chance to make a difference after the midterms
  • Borger: If they do well and gain influence, will they want to give party a positive message?
  • Borger: Immigration reform could test whether GOP wants to control White House again

(CNN) -- First, let's be clear: No one can blame voters if they a) are turned off by this election, b) are worried more about other things in their lives and c) don't think that it matters much who controls the Senate, which is what is up for grabs this year.

I mean, who could be inspired by Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes as she refuses to say whether she voted for President Obama, citing her constitutional right to privacy. (As a public candidate for public office, no less.) And then there's her opponent, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is so eager to win re-election (and possibly lead a Senate majority) that while calling for the repeal of Obamacare, he also says that the Kentucky health care exchange—which is working well—could continue. "I think it's fine to have a website," he allowed. Huh?

So OK, I get that, to a degree, this is a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Except for this: When the show is over, and if control of the Senate changes to the Republicans, it could matter. Not in the suddenly-we-are-all-going-to-work-together kind of way. But rather, in the it's-in-my-self-interest-to-get-something-done kind of way.

Without being too Pollyannish, let me posit this: If there is unified Republican control of the legislative branch, Republicans would be smart to do some much-needed repair work on the brand. This is not an argument for voting for Republicans; it's a possible route out of the gridlock.

Right now, too many voters see the GOP as just the party of stopping stuff, not inventing stuff. In a midterm election, that can work: Obama is unpopular, tie all candidates to Obama. Bingo, Senate majority.

Panetta: Logic doesn't work in Washington

But if Republicans take charge of the Congress, they will have run out of excuses. And they will have the opportunity to say, hey, it wasn't us bollixing up the works. It was Harry Reid.

Ah, you say, but what about President Obama? He's got a legacy to think about, and he'll be thinking about it, you can be sure. He's got as much self-interest here as does the GOP brand: He came into the White House with a vision of a transformational presidency. He's now all about issuing executive actions. That's not what he really wants, either.

The issue that comes to mind, of course, is immigration reform—which has been hanging out there so long it just gets messier and messier. The governing conundrum is outlined perfectly in The New York Times Upshot analysis: In order to keep their House majority, congressional Republicans don't need Hispanic votes. Not one. And Hispanics are conspicuously underrepresented as voters in most of the pivotal Senate races of 2014, excepting Colorado. But if the GOP actually wants to win a presidential election, author Nate Cohn writes, "the Republicans will need a substantial number of Hispanic votes."

All of which means that, at a certain point, GOP leaders need to decide one thing: Do they want to remain a congressional party? Or would they actually like to become a presidential party once again? If they do something—and get the issue off the front burner—they might actually have a shot at it. Their biggest burden: convince the recalcitrant, self-interested, hell-no rank-and-filers to actually get something done. For the party. And, by the way, for the country.

There's one logic that rules midterm elections--in which GOP candidates have political reasons to rail against immigration reform. Then there's another logic that takes hold when you try to set the table for a presidential candidate, and campaign—no matter what some party diehards argue. Presidential elections are about big things. Parties—and candidates—that shrink from solutions seem small, unworthy.

Sure, it depends on the GOP candidate. (As in: Chris Christie or Ted Cruz?) And it also depends on President Obama. What can he accept as a compromise? Would he be willing to accept a measure that provides some sort of secure legal status rather than a complete path to citizenship? And how would Democrats react to that?

Lots of unknowns, of course. And one of the biggest is whether Republicans—after more than four years out of the White House—have learned how tough it is to run the country from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

If they haven't figured that out, then the cynicism will be warranted. This election won't matter.

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