In my prior post on this topic, I attempted to refute one of President Obama’s critics from the left, Thomas Frank, who is skeptical of the value of bi-partisanship. Critics on the right seem even more strongly attached to the notion of politics as a struggle, rather than as an effort to reach accommodation. 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 likelihood 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. So we might as well just hand the reins over to the other party if we want to eliminate all the partisan wrangling.
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 (because otherwise all the Bush tax cuts will expire and automatic cuts to the defense budget will kick in). That means the Republicans in Congress must compromise on allowing revenue increases to be part of the equation if they want to avoid that result. 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, seem to 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. On the other hand, most voters seem to favor a more balanced approach to budget and tax issues, and to preserving social programs, than the Republicans are proposing. 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. Democrats are not likely to roll over 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.
Can the Republicans promise to end partisan gridlock? Only if they gain effective control over the entire government, and are empowered to pass a program that is probably a bit too extreme for most voters. If President Obama is re-elected, will that usher in an era of good feeling in Washington? Not very likely, but there may be some pressure on the opposition to participate in the process in a more constructive way.
by Joe Markowitz