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Are We Doomed No Matter Who Wins?

Monday, November 5, 2012

At first glance it certainly appears that way.

With Friday’s jobs report confirming the weakness of our economic recovery, the fiscal cliff rapidly coming into view, and American influence abroad continuing to erode, someone has to ask: is America doomed no matter who wins the presidential election?

At first glance it certainly appears that way.

Let’s begin by assuming that Mitt Romney ekes out a victory, winning the national popular vote by a point or two and capturing 275 electoral votes or thereabout. If Romney prevails — and I fervently hope he does — it will most likely be by slim margins such as these.

Let’s also assume that Republicans pick up a few seats in the Senate, probably not enough to retake the majority — even with a Vice President Paul Ryan casting a decisive 51st vote — but enough of a gain to render the upper chamber evenly divided, or nearly so. This, too, is the most plausible outcome, as GOP hopes to win the chamber outright have foundered on the shoals of ill-considered remarks by candidates in Missouri and Indiana, among other misfortunes.

And finally, let’s assume the House remains in Republican hands, with slightly diminished numbers, on the order of five seats lost to Democratic challengers. This, too, seems like the most likely result, as recent wild swings in congressional control appear to have calmed this cycle.

In this scenario, the Republicans will hardly be in a position to claim any sort of mandate from the election, as the country will essentially remain divided straight down the middle. Perhaps Romney will have succeeded, as he strove to do in tapping Ryan as his running mate, in making the election “about big things,” engaging the third-rail issues of entitlement and tax reform. But there would be no conclusive evidence that Americans sided with the Romney-Ryan vision if they elect the GOP tandem narrowly.

Without this mandate, how could a President Romney realistically hope to restore fiscal sanity along the lines of fundamentally changing Medicare and Social Security? How could he spur economic growth with broad-based changes to the tax code vigorously opposed by congressional Democrats? And, perhaps most importantly, how could he roll back or gut Obamacare without a Senate majority, let alone a filibuster-proof one?

If we assume that President Obama is narrowly reelected, things don’t look any rosier. If the president earns a second term, he’s almost certain to become only the second president in history — and the first since Woodrow Wilson — to win reelection by a lower popular and electoral margin than his first election. He may even become the first ever president to win reelection while losing the popular vote.

Romney actually has a track record of working with members of the opposing party.

No matter what, then, a re-upped Obama would begin his second term in a perilously weak position, facing a sharply divided Congress, and with no political capital to spare. He would enjoy no mandate of his own, in part because he declined to run on an actual plan for the next four years, and in part because half of all voters will have rejected whatever fragments of a plan he put forward.

If partisan gridlock marred the second two years of Obama’s first term, it will tarnish the first two years of his second even more darkly. Congressional Republicans, smelling blood in the water and nursing the wounds they sustained in losing a close campaign, will have far less incentive to work with the president than before.

Under these circumstances, how could a weakened President Obama hope to avert the fiscal cliff? How could he reasonably expect to muster support for a “jobs bill” or “son-of-stimulus” legislation? How could the second coming of Woodrow Wilson possibly hope to build support and trust among a deeply divided American people? And how could a president who is weak at home project power and confidence abroad?

I regret to say I don’t think there are any good answers to these questions. Our parlous economic and fiscal situation is likely to persist for a long while. Our international influence will continue to decline so long as we can’t get our own house in order. And whether it’s Romney or Obama at the helm, the partisan mudslinging that hasn’t ceased since the Bush-Gore standoff in 2000 will only become filthier and more destructive.

And yet, a small part of me still holds out hope that, at least under a President Romney, we could begin the process of climbing out of our hole. In his penultimate pre-election column, David Brooks writes:

If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis; if Romney wins, we’re more likely to get bipartisan reform. Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama. He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation — House Republicans. He’s more likely to get big stuff done.

Not quite a ringing endorsement of the challenger (talk about damning with faint praise!), but a largely accurate reading nonetheless. Romney actually has a track record of working with members of the opposing party. Perhaps a Romney administration could embrace the principles of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and iron out the details with moderate Democrats. Maybe a President Romney could collaborate with those same temperate voices in flattening the tax code for individuals and corporations while closing outdated loopholes. And it’s possible that a moderate commander-in-chief could return our foreign policy to the bipartisan consensus that took hold before and immediately after September 11.

So maybe we’re not screwed after all. Either way, we’ll find out soon enough.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “Will California Become a Right-to-Give State?,” “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, PC?,” and “The New Textualists’ Finest Hour?” Lee Harris discusses “Obama and Second Chances.” Michael Barone asks “If Obama Wins, Will He Be Another Woodrow Wilson?” and wagers “Going Out on a Limb: Romney Beats Obama, Handily.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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