The Likely Winner

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama
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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.