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John E. Sununu

Election winners can’t be pleased about what awaits

Harry Reid and John Boehner have work to do; Hillary Clinton is leaving office.

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Harry Reid and John Boehner have work to do; Hillary Clinton is leaving office.

As Americans take stock of the election results, everyone should pause before using the term “winners.” Don’t get me wrong: The numbers don’t lie. Some prevailed, and some did not. But don’t think for a moment that the victors are pleased about what awaits.

Is Harry Reid a winner? By all appearances, he hasn’t had much fun in the past two years. Although he added two seats to the Democratic Senate majority, the next two years don’t look much different. He’ll be dancing with the same Republican House majority and carrying water for the same president.

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The clever pundits also paint Florida Senator Marco Rubio as a big winner. Republicans performed poorly with Latino voters; Rubio is young, Cuban-American, and a rising star. As sharp and articulate as he may be, that’s still an extraordinary set of expectations to place on one person. Similar pressure will inevitably fall on senators like Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Kelly Ayotte to help strengthen the party’s appeal among women. All of them are capable of rising to the occasion, but — let’s face it — no one really wants to be declared a winner because their team was a loser.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner has a different problem. Having held his Republican majority, he gets to continue presiding over what was once described as “a collection of 435 high school class presidents.” For the Republican leader, controlling his own caucus is like being thrown into a cage where one side has been filled with hungry lions and the other with crying babies. It’s a constant struggle to keep the babies happy and the lions from eating the babies.

These aren’t winners; they are survivors.

The lame-duck congressional session begins tomorrow, and rarely has the term been more aptly applied. Even those who prevailed return to their chambers feeling hobbled by the grind of the campaign. If there is a unifying sensation, it’s one of relief. The defeated will walk the halls with disappointment, but they are also unburdened by the chore they know awaits their colleagues. That shared sense of relief may be the one thing helping members to work to a compromise over the pending “fiscal cliff.”

A year ago, one of my former Senate colleagues — a Democrat — approached me at a small reception. “It’s awful,” she lamented about the environment on Capitol Hill, and she asked for my take on why it was so sour. We shared the same frustration with the tension of campaigns, the 24-hour news cycle, outside political groups, and other things that coarsened the political atmosphere.

There’s no simple answer. As 2012 recedes from memory, some of that contentious edge may fade, but no one anticipates a significant change in tone. The day after the election, in fact, Harry Reid specifically mentioned changing the filibuster rule, which was designed to protect the minority in the Senate. That’s not exactly the best way to establish a fresh, cooperative tone in the halls of Congress.

The biggest winner on Tuesday night didn’t attend any of the late night campaign rallies; she didn’t even have her name on a ballot. Hillary Clinton didn’t spend months on the campaign trail — she’s done enough of that. Even so, President Obama’s reelection places her squarely in the catbird’s seat. Regardless of one’s feelings about Obama’s foreign policy choices, the secretary of state will leave office on her own terms, having spent four years faithfully and effectively representing the United States before leaders around the world. She has built an international reputation — and a Rolodex — that rivals that of her husband.

Only time will reveal whether the attack on the Benghazi consulate will leave a lingering stain on her term in office, but Hillary has avoided most of the flashpoints of Obama’s first four years. While Cabinet members like Eric Holder and Steven Chu have been grilled by congressional committees and issued reams of subpoenas, she avoided controversy and was well served by the relationships built during her years in the Senate.

She and I found few things to agree on in the Senate. But after 20 years in the White House, the Senate, and Foggy Bottom, her experience rivals that of any former president. Her husband played no small part in the president’s reelection; her longtime aide Jack Lew is now the White House Chief of Staff; and she just may be the most recognizable woman in the world. Someone break the news to Harry Reid: That’s what winning looks like.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.
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