This is my second post on the 2012 US election. For part one, scroll down or click here: http://aaronfrankenfeld.com/?p=31
Much of what I’ve heard or read about this presidential election proclaims it a contest between two divergent and incompatible ideologies; we’re told it’s a landmark election that will determine the United States’ future for a generation. If you’ve paid attention to the campaign thus far, you’ll understand that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offer ideologically disparate solutions to America’s assorted ills, and you can grasp why so many commentators portray the election in this light.
Unfortunately, these commentators are completely wrong.
The problem is that American presidential candidates always campaign as though they’ll govern in a vacuum. In reality, of course, the president doesn’t live in a vacuum, and in any case can hardly be said to ‘govern’ at all, at least in any functional individualistic sense. Presidents govern in cooperation with Congress, and most commentators at this point are in agreement: the Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives while Democrats will retain control of the Senate. Which means the great ideological clash between Romney and Obama is being preposterously oversold.
If Barack Obama wins another four years in office, history suggests that the last 18-24 months of his second term will essentially be time wasted, since lame-duck presidents seldom see significant legislative achievements. So the best case scenario for Obama was always going to be an extra 30 months of useful time as president, and the Tea Party’s (anticipated) continuing strength in the House of Representatives guarantees that at least the first 24 of those 30 months will result in the same type of gridlock that has made budget-cutting so difficult for the past two years. Whatever else President Obama might be able to accomplish in the 0-6 months that leaves, a dramatic nationwide ideological shift is completely unrealistic. For this reason, a second Obama term shouldn’t frighten Republican partisans any more than it represents a panacea to Democratic partisans. It will probably be as uneventful of a presidency as international events (Hello Iran!) allow.
If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, on the other hand, the impediment to his plans will be the Senate. The issue here is that Democratic control of the Senate is as close to a guarantee as there is in this election cycle, and it means that if Romney wants any legislation passed (or repealed, as with the Affordable Care Act), he’ll have to work with the Senate Democrats. Unfortunately for Romney, this means any legislation that can pass the Senate will probably infuriate the Tea Party portion of the House Republicans, and will consequently have to pass the House without their votes. This isn’t an insurmountable problem for Romney, but it does guarantee that for at least his first two years in office, he can only pass legislation amenable to Congressional Democrats (since he’ll need both the Senate Democrats and enough House Democrats to replace Tea Party votes). Thus, the first two years of a Romney presidency will hold either crippling gridlock or bipartisan moderation – depending on which course (or which Romney) Romney chooses – but either way, ideological sea change isn’t on the table.
As for the final two years of a Romney first term, bear in mind that he would be running for reelection. A dramatic shift to the right in his style of governance during a reelection campaign would be political insanity, and that’s without acknowledging that his current campaign has deliberately tried to style him as blandly and inoffensively as possible. The idea that Romney would spontaneously develop a true conservative backbone and shift hard to the right in the middle of a campaign is pure fantasy, and it says here that unless Romney chooses to be a true moderate and friend to Democrats, the last two years of a Romney first term would be characterized by presidential inactivity spun as gridlock. Once again, hardly the stuff to keep Democrats awake at night.
To recap: neither candidate will actually have the option to govern like the campaigns would have you believe. The real choices are bipartisanship or totally incapacitating squabbles, but in neither case will the result look at all like the ideological campaign I’m seeing in the media, and in neither case will the choice even be ours. Instead, this election is about selecting which president we’d rather see make the choice between compromise or frustration, incapacitation, and humiliation over the next few years. So don’t get sucked into the breathless hyperbole; the stakes are actually pretty low, at least for you and me. You might spare some pity for Obama and Romney, however; one will be a failure on November 6th, and the other will get four (And maybe eight, right Mitt?) years of it.