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The Likely Winner

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

There’s a good chance that fewer than one half of one percent of the country’s voters will determine whether Barack Obama will be able to function effectively as president if his lease on the White House is renewed in the election now finally upon us.

These are the ticket-splitters in swing districts, those who after voting for Obama will somehow find it possible to rationalize votes for members of the present Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thus choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to perpetuate the paralysis that has gripped Washington on most big issues.

As the marathon enters its final lap with the outcome at the presidential level still in doubt, the chance of the incumbent being elected with his party in the majority in both houses as it was after his 2008 victory seems distinctly smaller than a continuation of the status quo, or even the chance of Mitt Romney reaching the White House with Republicans in control of both chambers.

So while it may be true that we’re unlikely to see another election in which the issues are more clearly drawn, it’s probably not too soon to declare dysfunction the likely winner, when we take account of the splurge of Super PAC dollars, the nature of our checks-and-balances system (which might be shortened to read simply “checks system,” or perhaps “check for checks system”), and the obsession of the media with the latest stumble rather than the underlying commitments of candidates.

In one of the more audacious, least-commented-upon moments of his stellar comeback in the first presidential debate, the reborn, relentlessly upbeat Mitt Romney presented himself as the candidate best able “to work on a collaborative basis” and find “common ground.” That’s what he claimed to have done in Democratic Massachusetts. “I figured out from day one,” he said, “I had to get along and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done.” This was an amazing claim for the candidate who emerged from the Republican primaries tournament, in which anything other than an inflexible hard-right stand was likely to prove fatal.

The president—the man, after all, who patented the line that there were no red states or blue states, only the United States—seemed to be inwardly groaning as Romney stole his pitch. The former governor also promised that no rich person would see his taxes reduced as a result of the 20 percent across-the-board tax cut he has proposed, since he would be simultaneously plugging unspecified loopholes and eliminating unnamed deductions. Was he then promising to work across the aisle to reach an understanding with his running mate, Paul Ryan, whose eponymous budget promised substantial tax reductions in the highest bracket, or with Eric Cantor, the House Republican leader who has made tax resistance a sacred cause? Was he insinuating a stealth argument that only a Republican president could find common ground with these hitherto uncompromising ideologues in his own ranks?

In a glancing exchange in the second debate on October 16, Romney repeated his promise that he’d be the one to end partisan “gridlock” in Washington—in response, it seemed, to an assertion by the president that blamed Republican intransigence for his inability to move forward on immigration reform. “We haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis,” the challenger said, without specifying immigration reform or any other pending issue that he deemed ripe for compromise. In Romney’s telling, Barack Obama was the polarizing figure in American politics, the man who dared to push through reform to the health care system with no Republican votes, as if those votes had been there for harvesting if only the president had been willing to bend a little. In this version, Obama’s supplications to supposedly “moderate” Republicans like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Charles Grassley of Iowa in the summer of 2009, which flummoxed liberals, wouldn’t count as reaching across the aisle because they failed (even if their failure owed everything to the iron discipline Senator Mitch McConnell imposed on the Republican caucus).

Buried deep between the lines of competing sound bites in the debates were two narratives. One portrayed an inept, aloof Obama who talked a good game when it came to bipartisan compromise but didn’t know how to connect with legislative leaders in his own party, let alone Republicans. The other portrayed a radicalized opposition that viewed compromise as a mortal sin, specifically compromise with Obama, for it had no higher goal, as McConnell notoriously declared, than to make him a one-term president.

The first of these narratives is tacitly embraced by Bob Woodward in his murky and tortuous new book The Price of Politics, which seeks to serve, through his usual medley of unattributed insider accounts, as a chronicle of what went down in Washington behind closed doors as emboldened Republicans fenced with the president over deficits, taxes, and entitlements.1 Woodward lightly faults both sides but comes down hardest on Obama, concluding: “Presidents work their will—or should work their will—on the important matters of national business…. Obama has not.” Which is nearly true if you leave aside the Affordable Care Act, the big stimulus, the bailout of the auto companies, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, the withdrawal from Iraq, and various other outcomes that might be counted as having something to do with this president’s will.

The alternative overview recognizes the force of implacable, unreasoning opposition. It can be found in a passionate tract, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by two normally dispassionate think tankers, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who lay most of the blame on the congressional Republicans Mitt Romney implicitly promises to tame and lead. As seen by the two scholars, the Republican Party

has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.2

Of course, most voters will read neither book. Some will be encouraged by candidate Romney’s supposed “pivot” to the center, executed with much élan in the first debate. Only those who already agree with Mann and Ornstein about Republican “extremism” will take it into account when casting their ballots, for it’s an argument of which Democrats generally have been leery. Why? Maybe because it reveals their weakness. Or because it requires too much explanation, too detailed an understanding of last year’s news. Or because in the homestretch of a campaign most Republicans, like Romney, come on as moderates—champions of Medicare and financial regulation—just as Democrats pretend to be deficit hawks.

Or finally, perhaps, because the argument is unlikely to appeal to ticket-splitters.

If Obama squeaks through, the health care reform will survive and be mostly implemented; the Supreme Court won’t swing even further to the right, not at least for four years; and a veil won’t be dropped again over the question of whether the United States practices “enhanced interrogation.”

Commentators on the left and right will say that the president would have been beaten by a stronger opponent; in other words, that he deserved to lose, according to the rules of the game as they’re understood in Washington. Conservatives will say Romney wasn’t conservative enough. Liberals will say Obama didn’t earn his victory because he wasn’t liberal enough, that once again, given the state of the economy, he was lucky. Few will consider the possibility that a plurality of voters chose with their eyes open to support him.

Meanwhile, unless prognosticators who follow congressional races most closely are way off the mark, dysfunction is more than likely to reign.3

Next, “the cliff”—hang on, don’t look down.

—October 21, 2012

  1. 1

    Simon and Schuster, 2012. 

  2. 2

    It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books, 2012); reviewed in these pages by Ezra Klein, September 27, 2012. 

  3. 3

    The latest estimate of the respected Rothenberg Political Report has the Democrats falling fifteen to twenty-one seats short of regaining a majority in the House of Representatives. It rates them as slight favorites to retain the Senate. 

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