Oct. 24, 2010— -- If you're looking for the settling of the election-season dust to clear up the political picture, keep looking.
With the end of the campaign season will come a new dynamic in Washington, with the potential for even more partisan gridlock than the public has witnessed over the past two years.
It's an eventuality that leaders in both parties are quietly preparing for -- and that Democrats anticipate as having a potential long-term upside that they seldom admit to publicly.
If Republicans take control of the House but not the Senate, as now seems likely, the three major legislative institutions will find themselves at cross-purposes for much of the final two years of President Obama's first term.
The House will be under narrow control of the GOP, with a majority delivered by a fresh crop of outsider candidates for whom "bipartisanship" is code for selling out.
In the Senate, the larger Republican minority will be able to effectively block anything GOP leaders insist on, with centrists in both parties less influential by dint of that math.
The White House's focus, meanwhile, will turn quickly toward Obama's reelection. After an active two years with major domestic accomplishments, the president will have to play small-ball on big issues to avoid endless partisan confrontations.
No party or politician is likely to look particularly good under that set of circumstances. But Democrats can at least take solace in the fact that divided control of government brings divided responsibility -- as well as divided blame for what voters perceive as not working.
The national angst that's driving this campaign isn't directed at Democrats so much as it is at Washington. If Republicans control one of the major levers of power over the next two years, the president will have a more influential foil to position against, and Democrats from the White House on down will be able to blame members of the opposite party for the gridlock.
Republicans leaders know their party is in favor for what it's not, more than for what it is; accordingly, the GOP is campaigning on something close to a promise of inaction.
Knowing well that a new crop of tea party-inspired Republicans isn't coming to Washington to work with Democrats, Republican leaders in Congress are signaling that their primary role will be to oppose the Democratic agenda.
"I'm going to be very, very clear with people around the country: There's going to be no compromise on ending the era of runaway federal spending, borrowing, bailouts, takeovers, deficits and debts," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the third-ranking House Republican, told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on Friday.
"There's no compromise on repealing Obamacare lock, stock and barrel," Pence added. "There's going to be no compromise on changing the course back to fiscal responsibility, limited government and reform."
While maintaining publicly that they believe they will retain control of the House and Senate, some Democrats have begun quiet planning for what Washington will look like under Republican control of at least one house of Congress.
A few areas for genuine bipartisanship may exist, in areas including education, trade policy and some facets of energy exploration and production.
A presidential commission on deficits and the debt -- scheduled to report its findings shortly after the election -- will test the opportunities for compromise across party lines, as will a lame-duck congressional session with tax cuts on the agenda.
Beyond that, however, the next two years don't hold the promise of vast action. Democrats who checked off several big agenda items over the past two years may be content with moving along the edges, implementing health care and financial regulatory reform and grinding through what they can in Congress even while political attention turns to 2012.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both parlayed first-term midterm setbacks into successful reelection campaigns. Obama doesn't appear likely to follow the "triangulation" strategy that Clinton used to play off the new Republican majority in Congress, but he will be pleased to no longer own the state of the economy by himself.
There are many things about a Republican majority that the White House won't like: fresh subpoenas and investigations, more vetoes and more threats, the effective end of chances to push big priority items for the rest of the president's term.
But Republicans are about to get a new crop of members who won't be easy to manage, with tea partiers holding no great love for GOP leadership, either.
And Democrats who are frustrated that they haven't gotten credit from voters for their accomplishments will have the chance to watch Republicans try to get some things done.
"It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible," President Obama told The New York Times' Peter Baker in a recent interview.