CONTRIBUTORS

5 big political questions for 2023

Jonathan Bernstein
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Political prognosticators are facing a mountain of unknowns for the coming year, starting with whether President Joe Biden will seek a second term. There are other cliffhangers, including whether former President Donald Trump will be indicted and whether Rep. Kevin McCarthy will succeed in getting elected speaker of the House. Here are five more developments I’m watching that have the potential to shake up the political landscape.

Will the U.S. government default on its debt?

The federal government is set to hit its borrowing limit sometime next year. A failure by Congress to raise the debt ceiling as it periodically does would cause the federal government to default on its debt for the first time ever, an event many economists say would spark an immediate crisis in financial markets.

It really could happen. With Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives, the GOP is talking tough about using the need to increase the limit to force policy changes. But the real problem isn’t a potential bargaining breakdown; it is that a lot of House Republicans simply won’t vote for a debt limit increase regardless of circumstances. Indeed, those Republicans might be inclined to punish any GOP House speaker who brings the measure to the floor.

U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker talks to the crowd during a Smyrna rally with Gov. Brian Kemp on Nov. 19, 2022. He lost in a runoff to Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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There will almost certainly be a bipartisan House majority in favor of an increase with no conditions attached. But the majority party determines what comes up for a vote, and it isn’t clear that any Republican speaker will allow it. Unfortunately, it’s generally a safe bet that something will happen in Congress that requires only inaction, compared with something that requires action.

Will the Republican House impeach Biden?

Had the 2022 election gone better for them, House Republicans would most likely have pushed for a Biden impeachment. And even with their less-than-dominant performance, they might still seek an impeachment. We know that Trump wants to remove some of the stigma of his own two impeachments, and he has plenty of friends in the House. Besides, within the Republican Party, it’s difficult to say no to Democrat-bashing, and there is always someone around to ratchet things up.

Impeaching Biden would require the cooperation of nearly all Republicans in the House, an uncertain prospect. Yet even if the attempt was doomed to fail on the House floor, there are a lot of Republicans who want to be on record voting for impeachment.

Unlike a government default, the effects would be largely symbolic. But symbolic damage to the constitutional order matters — and there are also the very real costs involved in distracting the White House and Congress from governing.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention anything about grounds for impeachment. That’s because there aren’t any legitimate grounds, although that probably doesn’t matter to Republicans leading the charge on this.

Will Republican recruitment for crucial races go better than in 2022?

This will be a big story in 2023. Odd-numbered years are when the bulk of candidate recruitment happens for Senate and gubernatorial contests. In 2021, Republicans suffered setback after setback, as seemingly strong candidates such as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey chose not to challenge sitting Democratic senators. The result was a historically weak group of candidates — and historically unusual losses for an out-party.

What’s far from clear is whether Republicans are fixing what was broken. Prospective candidates might still be frightened by the possibility that Trump loyalists with dubious qualifications would have an edge in party primaries. And politicians interested in creating conservative public policy might still not believe that it was possible to do so in a party that values outrage over substance.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, defeated gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano is already sharing (apparently bogus) polls for the 2024 Senate contest, so that isn’t a good sign for Republicans.

Will Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor retire?

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg died during Trump’s presidency, Democrats grew more aware of the benefits of strategic retirement from the Supreme Court. Some are starting to encourage Sonia Sotomayor, who is 68, and even Elena Kagan, 62, to step down while there is a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate — neither of which is guaranteed after 2024.

Even if Biden or another Democrat is president in 2025, Republicans have made it fairly clear that they would block any Democratic nominee to the high court if it is up to them. A Republican-majority Senate last confirmed a Supreme Court justice nominated by a Democrat in the 19th century.

And with a very favorable Senate map in this cycle, the GOP is in a position to gain two seats (and the Senate majority) even if it’s a decent year overall for Democrats. Nor is it hard to imagine it taking 12 years — or longer — for Democrats to regain the presidency and a Senate majority.

Justice Clarence Thomas chose not to retire when Republicans had unified control; he will be 75 in June, and he certainly could be around the next time a Republican in the White House can get a similarly conservative nominee confirmed. But any justice over 65 is taking a real risk that they will imperil the principles they fought for if they fail to retire strategically. Sotomayor will have to decide — and Democrats are going to make sure she knows what the stakes will be.

Will the election results influence the Court?

The current court has more than just a very conservative majority. As we saw in several decisions, but especially in the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, it’s an aggressive court eager to influence public policy.

Supreme Court justices have lifetime positions and don’t have to worry about the next election. But party actors do worry about such things. And these days all Supreme Court justices act as if they are partisans. Concern over electoral effects may be why Chief Justice John Roberts in many cases including Dobbs has acted less aggressively than the other conservatives. After the abortion decision was credited with helping Democrats in the midterms, the question is whether one or more conservative justices will temper their approach.

Republicans overall may view the tradeoff — a sweeping abortion decision in apparent exchange for one disappointing midterm election — as worth it. Even so, Roberts might find some allies among justices who believe that the party is better off getting conservative results in smaller increments, rather than through sweeping decisions such as Dobbs. With several hot-button decisions expected in the coming months, including on such matters as the power of state legislatures over elections, affirmative action and environmental regulation, the consequences of the choice between incrementalism and grabbing what they can quickly could be enormous.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.