Unlike some people, I am not yet ready to call the election for Romney. Nonetheless he gets stronger every day, so it is time to consider what a Romney Presidency would look like. The problem is, it is hard to tell. After going out of his way to show what a good plutocrat he was during the primary, he shook his etch-a-sketch for the debates and emerged only a few degrees off from Obama. So, assuming Romney wins an election, what would we expect a Romney Presidency to look like?
I discussed the subject in an earlier post. At that time, I saw two possibilities for a Romney Presidency -- Romney as hard right, or Romney as Eisenhower, i.e., making Obama's policies unobjectionable because a Republican is supporting them. At the time, Romney as hard right seemed plausible because a Republican blow-out looked like a real possibility. Today, that is seeming increasingly unlikely. Although Romney's chances improve every day, the Senate seems most likely to remain in Democratic hands. Jonathan Chait believes that enough Senate Democrats will defect to give Romney whatever he wants, for fear of seeming too liberal. Color me unconvinced. Senators, particularly in red states, may fear seeming too liberal, but it does not logically follow that they want to be on record voting for huge tax cuts at the top, or for turning Medicare into a voucher system. Neither of those are popular by themselves; the combination is deadly. A Republican might be forced to support these very unpopular positions by the threat of a primary challenge, but a Democrat should be able to defy them with impunity. So I think Romney governing from the hard Right is unlikely, given the likely composition of Congress.
Roughly speaking, I now see two possibilities: Romney as Bush Junior, and Romney as Eisenhower.
Romney as Bush, Junior: George W. Bush managed to get bipartisan support for a lot of what he did, by two main tactics. One was to adopt a superficially Democratic goal but pursue it in a Republican fashion. Examples include Medicare D and No Child Left Behind. Republicans distrust federal involvement in education and any expansion of the federal role in healthcare, but were unable to say no to a Republican President. Democrats favor those things, but were skeptical about how Bush went about them. (NCLB imposed immense costs on schools, without offering any additional resources; Medicare D was unfunded). The other approach was to propose measures no one dared oppose for fear of having their patriotism impugned. The PATRIOT Act and the Iraq war are the most obvious examples. Tax increases are always hard to say no to, although many Democrats managed.
So, would that work this time around? Presumably what Romney would propose would be some sort of tax cut, primarily but not exclusively at the top, a move to "save" Medicare or make it more "sustainable" by going to a voucher system, and a block grant of Medicaid, Food Stamps, and perhaps other programs for the poor, combined with deep cuts. Throw in a war with Iran and the question is, could he bully Democrats into going along? It's hard to say, but my guess would be it would be more difficult this time around. For one thing, the 60-vote threshold is by now so well established that getting rid of it would be very difficult with Democrats in the majority. Romney might be able to peal off a few Democrats on purely budgetary matters, but they would be much more willing to follow the Republican precedent and filibuster any major structural changes in Medicare, Medicaid or Food Stamps. Posing as champions of Medicare is always a winning tactic. Championing programs for the poor is less so, but "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" (which is certainly what the Ryan Plan proposes) is a slogan with emotional resonance. Finally, there is not much appetite for war right now. Alas, it is unlikely that Democrats will do much to stop the use of torture by a Romney Administration.
In short, I do not think the Democrats will be as easy to bully as in the past.
Romney as Eisenhower: Alternately, Romney switched to a moderate tone in the debate that has pushed him so far ahead. He could agree to work with a Democratic Senate to achieve genuinely bipartisan goals. He might agree to reform, rather than repeal, Obamacare and Frank-Dodd banking reform, in ways that reduce red tape while keeping the basic goals (universal coverage, keeping banks from taking too many risks) in place. He could propose an eminently sensible economic program of short-term stimulus combined with long-term cuts. He could scare the bejesus out of people about the future of Social Security and Medicare and reach some bipartisan deal combining Republican goals (spend less) and Democratic goals (protect the vulnerable). He could get Republicans to go along by cracking the whip and demanding they obey a Republican President, and also by assuring them that it is okay for the government to spend money so long as a Republican is doing the spending. Would this work?
It's really hard for me to say. I will say, that the residual resentments over Bush, Jr. and Obama make it a lot harder than it once would have been. Republicans have so strongly identified themselves with certain ideological positions that it will be hard for them to back down, regardless of who is in the White House. (Not long ago, they were arguing that it didn't matter if Romney was a moderate, he would sign whatever Congress passed. But back then Republicans could largely assume that they would hold the Senate. That is seeming less and less likely). And besides, much as the Democrats would like to get something constructive done, they really can't afford to come across as pushovers, considering how obstructionist Republicans have been.
And that is why ultimately, I remain dead-set against Romney, even if he turns out to be the second coming of Dwight David Eisenhower. I would probably support most of an Eisenhower Romney's policies, but in today's climate, politics have to trump policy. If Romney is able to work with Democrats and achieve much of what Democrats want, the result will still be to reward Republican obstructionism. It will be to show that Republicans can deliver and Democrats can't; that Republicans can govern and Democrats can't. It will realistically convince a lot of people that our partisan deadlock was all Obama's or the Democrats' fault. And it will allow Republicans to succeed in their blackmail -- elect us, or we will make the country ungovernable.