Tuesday, September 4, 2012

After the election

According to Ramesh Ponnuru, a writer for National Review, President Obama is kidding himself if he thinks that after winning re-election, the Republican Party is likely to become more cooperative than they have acted during his first term.
If Obama wins re-election, the Republican Party will react by moving right, not left. It will become less likely to compromise with Obama, not more. 
Ponnuru reaches this conclusion based on the likely results of this election, that President Obama will win by a smaller margin than in 2008, unusual for an incumbent, and that the Republican Party will strengthen its control over Congress. In that situation, the Republican Party is likely to feel even more emboldened to push its conservative agenda than previously. 

There is a thinly-veiled plea in this analysis, to consider voting for Romney instead of Obama, in the hope that renewed Republican control over the government will allow the government to function more effectively than under the existing stalemate. If voters are sick of partisan gridlock, they should not support Obama, goes this argument, because in President Obama's second term, the Republicans are going to become even more obstreperous than they already are.

I question the premise of this argument for several reasons. First, the upcoming budget negotiations, which all parties have agreed to put off until the lame duck session after the election, have been designed to force the Republicans in Congress to compromise regardless of who wins the election. Recall that the budget negotiations of 2010 and 2011 were resolved by agreement to extend all of the Bush tax cuts to December 2012, but not beyond; and to mandate automatic spending cuts, largely to the defense budget, in the event Congress is unable to resolve the continuing budget deadlock. That means that if the Republicans refuse to deal after the election, they get the worst of all possible worlds for them: all the Bush tax cuts will automatically expire in December, and massive cuts in defense spending will kick in automatically. All the Democrats have to do to achieve that result is . . . nothing. The results of a failure to agree have effectively been rigged to favor the Democrats' position. That means the Republicans in Congress must compromise on allowing revenue increases to be part of the equation if they want to allow even some of the Bush tax cuts to continue, and if they want to avoid draconian cuts to the defense budget. But if Romney wins, Republicans in Congress will probably be less likely to recognize the necessity of compromise.

Second, the outcome that conservatives are advancing, that they will take an even harder line after the election, is not what most people, particularly moderate and independent voters, want. When asked, people respond positively to the suggestion that the parties work together to find common solutions. They respond negatively to obstructionism and delay. Again, this seems true regardless of which candidate wins the presidential election. People are disgusted with Congress because its members seem unable to work with people of the opposite party to solve common problems. And while people also generally think the government should do more to cut spending, and are also not keen on tax increases, the majority of the electorate also clearly does not buy into the entire Republican program. People want to preserve Medicare and Social Security pretty much in their current form, and they think that if anybody ought to pay more taxes, it should be the wealthiest among us. So while Romney supporters are probably right that people want the government to function more smoothly, that doesn't necessarily show support for smoothly passing the whole Republican agenda.

Finally, let's not forget the crucial role of the United States Senate, the bane of practically every president's existence. Unless one party has a super-majority, which neither party is likely to get after this election, the Senate has considerable power to put a monkey wrench into any president's plans. If President Obama is re-elected, there is going to be some pressure for Republicans in the Senate to compromise on budget and tax issues, for the reasons above. But if Romney is elected, again, Republicans will be less likely to understand the need to compromise, and will claim a mandate to pass Romney's program. Romney is not talking about bi-partisanship. He is not out advocating that Democrats and Republicans work together. You never hear him extol the virtues of compromise. Not only will his party respond in kind, Democrats also are not likely to be responsive to calls for compromise if they find themselves in the minority. And in the Senate, a minority of Democrats would still have the power to derail much of the Republican program. Even more tax cuts for the wealthy? Turning Medicare into a voucher program? As we say in New Jersey, fuggedaboutit.

Those seem strong reasons to support President Obama's hope that after the election, we may move a few baby steps closer to the dream of seeing the two parties learn to work together in a constructive way. And that is far more likely to happen with a President Obama, who actually supports that goal, than with a President Romney, who might expect to govern like a CEO but is likely to face a rude awakening if he cannot control Congress.


  1. << the Republicans in Congress must compromise ... if they want to avoid draconian cuts to the defense budget >>

    Why would Dems want draconian cuts to defense?

  2. Where did I say that Democrats want draconian cuts to the defense budget? I just read what I wrote again, and I cannot find myself saying that anywhere.

    All I am saying is that last year's budget deal was set up in such a way that the results of a failure to agree are much more politically unacceptable to the Republicans than to the Democrats. Politically, Democrats can probably stomach larger defense cuts than Republicans can, but what the Democrats are counting on is that Republicans will want to restore a lot of those automatic defense cuts, and in order to do that, Republicans are going to have to agree to balance the domestic spending cuts they want with some revenue increases.

  3. << the Republicans in Congress must compromise ... if they want to avoid draconian cuts to the defense budget >>

    If Dems don't want draconian defense cuts then you could say the Democrats must compromise if they want to avoid draconian cuts to the defense budget.

    Which is it?

    1. For the Democrats, the question of restoring defense cuts is more like a bargaining chip than a real compromise.

      Look, everybody knows what a budget deal would have to look like. The Democrats would have to agree to some cuts in social programs and discretionary spending, which they are willing to do, and the Republicans would have to agree to raising some taxes, which they have so far refused to do. And in the bargain, they'll both agree to restore some defense cuts, which they are both willing to do, but the Republicans want that more than the Democrats.

  4. Sounds like what I suggested four years ago before Obamacare! Congress is a bunch of wingnuts from two parties.