If Romney Wins
For those of us with a Twitter-enabled polling addiction and a bad crosstab habit, it’s almost become possible to lose sight of the fact that there’s more at stake in this election than whether state pollsters are more reliable than national ones, or whether Gallup’s likely-voter screen is an outlier or spot-on, or which party’s demographic projections makes more sense. Maybe that explains why this Politico story on the Romney transition effort seemed to come and go last week with hardly any comment. Obviously the various on-background quotes need to be taken with a grain of salt (not least because the most important players in Romney’s inner circle are still absorbed with the campaign), but this seemed like a striking passage:
One of the biggest worries for a Romney administration, according to the aides, will be keeping conservative lawmakers happy when the most urgent task, dealing with the nation’s fiscal emergency, is going to immediately alienate the loud, powerful wing of House Republicans that is resistant to raising revenues, even though their leaders recognize it is a mathematical necessity.
That would be the most urgent task for a Vice President Paul Ryan, who has credibility with the tea party wing of House Republicans from his stint as a reformist House Budget Committee chairman.
“We’re going to come in and need to be able to do a lot of things that aren’t easy to do,” the official said. “Ryan is going to have to help keep the conservatives at bay and on the field. Some of them are going to expect us to come in and do a lot of things that we aren’t going to be able to do.”
One of those things, the piece reports, is “Romney’s repeated promise to ‘repeal Obamacare’” — which is “sure to be curtailed, even with a Republican Senate, his advisers admit.” Now this is semi-contradicted later in the same piece, when we get a discussion of how Romney plans to “try to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to rewrite the Tax Code and dump much of the Affordable Care Act.” So again, take it all with a grain of salt. But the thrust of the piece comports with what I’ve heard from various (and to be clear, non-inner circle) people doing work for the transition, and it leaves two strong impressions overall. First, that Romney sees himself as having much more room to maneuver than the liberal narrative about his inevitable captivity to his base (and his own more implausible promises) would suggest. Second, that no matter which party holds the Senate, but especially if the Democrats do, the policy agenda in a Romney presidency — both its shape, and his ability to push it through — will hinge in large part on what kind of cooperation he gets from the more centrist portions of the Democratic Senate caucus.
Here a great deal depends on whether you take 2001 or 2005 as the model for how Senate Democrats might behave. After the 2000 election — and notwithstanding the bitterness of its Florida endgame — George W. Bush was able to arm-twist, pressure and a cajole a number of red and purple-state Democratic senators into voting for his signature domestic policy proposal, the 2001 tax cuts. This experience informs Jonathan Chait’s recent claim, in a piece explaining why liberals should quake at the prospect of the Romney presidency, that Romney could pass a version of Paul Ryan’s budget even if Harry Reid remains the Senate majority leader:
… In 2001, red-state Democratic Senators were desperate to tout their bipartisan credentials and wound up supporting the Bush tax cuts in return for token concessions. In 2013, you’ll have a wave of Democratic senators from red (often increasingly red) states like Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and North Carolina facing reelection the next year. None of them is going to want the optics of standing with their party in a high-profile showdown, especially where the president could blame them for jeopardizing the recovery and blocking tax cuts for the middle class …
Now, I happen to think that the smart political move for Senate Democrats would be to ape the McConnell strategy, blocking Romney at every turn, which would make his promise to work with both parties a failure, and at the same time, block stimulus spending that would speed up the recovery. (This is a pure, cold political analysis.) Their best shot to survive the midterm election is an unpopular Romney burdened by a sluggish recovery. But the Senate Democratic caucus tends not to think in McConnell-esque terms. Senate Democrats in red states put their chips on positioning themselves in the center. They will perceive obstructionism as risking their political career and will likely be racing to cut a deal, even an unconscionable one.
Imagine you’re Romney, trying to pass some version of the Ryan plan through a Senate with, say, 51 or 52 Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will be defending Senate seats in states like Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and North Carolina. All those senators will be desperate to burnish their bipartisan credentials. Romney would barely sweat the task of picking off a couple of them to support his agenda, perhaps in return for some a favor to their local industry.
But of course, 2001 wasn’t the last time a Republican president tried to woo Democrats in order to get a controversial measure through the Senate. There was also the case 2005, when a recently re-elected President Bush decided to spend his political capital on a push Social Security reform, and the Democrats met his push with uniform resistance. Via Reihan Salam, here’s an Amy Sullivan article from 2006 on the success of this “party of no” strategy:
Most of the press corps expected the debate [over Social Security reform] to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president’s plan, but Social Security—one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact—would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s “risky” proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.
As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush’s effort—which it did by early summer—Democrats couldn’t be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans’ successful effort to kill Clinton’s health-care plan.
Now the Democrats held just 45 Senate seats in 2005, as opposed to the 50 they held in 2001 even before Jim Jeffords went rogue on the Republicans. And as the last four years have demonstrated, it’s easier to keep a smaller Senate caucus voting in lockstep than the larger one, which would suggest that a close to 50-50 Senate might actually give Romney more opportunities to peel off vulnerable Democrats than Bush had seven years ago.
But on the other hand, a truly Ryanesque budget would have more in common with Social Security reform than it would with the Bush tax cuts. It’s one thing for a vulnerable Senate Democrat to break with his party on what was sold as a free-lunch tax cut following a long economic expansion; it’s quite another to volunteer yourself as the 51st vote to dramatically restrain discretionary spending and “end Medicare as we know it” after an election rife with Mediscare rhetoric from both sides. I’d like to think that there would be Democratic votes for, say, the premium support reform in a Romney presidency, because I’m confident that no entitlement reform can long endure if Republicans can’t get some Democratic buy-in. But if that happened, it would only come at the end of a long and drawn-out negotiation process involving significant concessions on both sides. A “favor to their local industry” might be enough to win votes on some issues, but not for a budget that grabs the Medicare third rail with both hands.
So the question is twofold: How good a negotiator is Romney, really, and how willing are Democrats to come to the table? Chait’s scenario, in which Romney simply rolls Democrats, isn’t likely to happen. The scenario in which Romney has a slim Senate majority and passes major legislation through reconciliation seems likely to lead to a backlash that would endanger any substantial reforms long before they’re implemented. The scenario where Romney simply can’t get anything through the Senate would obviously be an ugly one. So I’m left to hope (though not expect) that an initial show of flexibility, like the kind previewed in the Politico piece, would buy a President Romney enough goodwill to ultimately push through a tax reform/entitlement reform/reform of health care reform trifecta, while compromising on the various places where the official House G.O.P. agenda is either implausible or unwise.
If, of course, we get a President Romney at all.
- Why The Vileness Matters – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Would a Democratic Senate Stop President Romney? (nymag.com)
- Paul Ryan’s Future Unclear If He Loses (huffingtonpost.com)
- Romney Holds ‘Storm Relief Event’ – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Senate control teeters on a handful of states (newsobserver.com)
- The Upside of Opportunism (nytimes.com)
- Mitt talks bipartisanship, drawing doubters (politico.com)
- A Big Storm Requires Big Government – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Romney or Obama and the Supreme Court: Does it even matter? (salon.com)
- Richard Mourdock rape remarks prompt calls for Romney to act (guardian.co.uk)