President Obama is ahead in the polls – slightly – as the Republican Convention opens in Tampa. It appears that a summer of brutally negative campaigning and Mitt Romney’s selection of “the next President of the United States,” to be his running-mate have failed to shift voters’ sentiment in any great way. Americans should prepare for a bruising two months of political back-and-forth before they select their next President. But is it the case that, no matter who wins in November, when it comes to economic and fiscal issues, the Republicans have already ‘won’?
The 2012 election is apparently being fought between two contrasting philosophies of government, when it isn’t being fought over the trivial and non-consequential. We all love a good tale about Seamus the dog, or about how Obama prefers to be interviewed by the editor of Glamour instead of by the editor of the National Review. Sometimes, though, a good philosophical debate is what we all really yearn for, and, supposedly, we have Mitt Romney to thank for this. Thanks and praise to the eternal one above for Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running-mate, for it is this that has resulted in 2012 becoming the most consequential election of anyone’s lifetime (sorry Abe). For it is this that means, come November 8th, whatever party emerges victorious in the White House will claim that most elusive of prizes in US politics: the mandate for its particular philosophy. Ah, the mandate.
Except, that is not how it will go. For 20 years, both parties have tried to claim a mandate after various elections, only to squander that imagined mandate. Bill Clinton won with the lowest tally of any President in the modern era, to see his ‘mandate’ eliminated by Newt Gingrich just two years later. His victory in 1996 confirmed the era of divided government as he continued to face a Republican congress. The man who lost the popular vote in 2000 couldn’t exactly claim a mandate, even if he did ‘win’ the Presidency and even if Republicans did control all of the levers of government – just. Yes, the Republicans gained in 2002 and 2004 when the electorate were scared witless and the Democrats were unable to find their voice. But all of those Republican gains were wiped out in 2006, after Bush claimed a ‘mandate’ for privatizing social security and voters began to tire of war in Iraq. 2008 was supposed to be the Democrats’ turn for a crack at the mandate claiming – a ‘landslide’ victory for Obama, a bigger majority in the House and a near veto proof majority in the Senate. And then the Tea Party had its party in 2010.
Despite Karl Rove’s hopes and the Democrats’ delusions, the past decade has simply entrenched the system of divided government, with the odd shuffling of what collection of dozen states are subjected to more political advertising than the remaining 38. It is also despite the US electorate’s assertions (whimperings) that they do not like divided government, their wish that one of the parties would roll up their sleeves and do something, and the consequent backlash when one of the parties does what the public says it wants them to do. All in all, it’s not a particularly smart way of governing, but it does make for entertaining politicking/reality television.
What may make 2012 different – and I stress may, more of which anon – is that the Republicans have already won the argument between small government vs whatever it is the Democrats believe. Partly because of that very difficulty of expressing what it is that Democrats believe in and partly because the battle is being fought again. After all, it was fought 30 years ago, and the Republicans won then. This current battle is simply about moving the country to catch up with where the Republican Party has got to, and the Democrats seem happy to accept the field of battle. So, in a sense, even if Obama ekes out his 48-47% victory, and even if Harry Reid keeps his slightly bigger office, the Republicans have already won and may not even need a mandate to enact their agenda.
Drew Westen wrote five years ago that the Republicans had mastered the Democrats through superior tactics, through an ability to articulate what it was that the party stood for, and through an aggressive offensive against Democrats, all whilst the Democrats floundered. An inspiring Senator gave the impression that Democrats had found their voice and might be able to counter the GOP, thus winning that famous 53%-46% landslide. But it is worth remembering that the McCain campaign scored several own goals – “the fundamentals of the US economy are strong,” the suspended campaign to rush back to Washington to deal with the economy, Sarah Palin – and that McCain remained only 3 or 4 points behind Obama at the end of September; Obama only cracked 50% in the polling average in mid-October, despite widespread revulsion of the incumbent Republican President.
The fact that Democrats turned victory into defeat over health care reform is perhaps most astounding. Polls consistently show significant majorities of Americans favoured health-care reform prior to 2008, albeit with mixed views on what type of reform that should be. However, by the time the Patient Protetion and Affordable Care Act became law in 2010 – snatched from the jaws of defeat in a Democratic dominated Congress – the Tea Party had been born and a clear majority of Americans were virulently opposed to the very reforms that Obama had a mandate to enact. This despite the fact that doctors favoured universal health care by a 2:1 margin in a March 2008 poll, and despite the fact that Obama ran strongly on health care reform
Roll forward to 2012 and the GOP is resurgent. Unusually this has virtually nothing to do with the party’s standard bearer – whom the party faithful would rather was someone, anyone, else – and everything to do with the No. 2 on the ticket and with a certain septuagenarian Congressman from Texas whom Romney soundly beat in the Primaries, one Ron Paul. It is not untypical for the opposition party to swing towards ideological purity after electoral defeat – think 1972, 1984, 1996 – but it is much more typical for the guy at the top of the ticket to embody that ideological fervour. It is also typical for such fervour to be soundly beaten in Presidential races – think 1972, 1984, 1996 – with the occasional Congressional victor keeping the flame alive.
Republican economic orthodoxy is now accepted as deficit reduction at the exclusion of all other considerations (except the military), tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, and a general, dramatic reduction of the state – limited government is the cry. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals have been placed at the heart of what a future Republican administration will attempt to achieve, but they have also been placed at the heart of political debate in the US – not so much a part of the debate but the pivot around which the debate now takes place. The debate is not, as Democrats wish to believe, about the role of government but about how much the state should be shrunk. The experience of the last three decades, during which the conservative philosophy of economics has become the accepted norm, suggests that even an Obama victory in 2012 will merely be a stop-gap before the Ryan budget gets enacted. The question is simply whether that happens in 2013 or 2017.
As to what might make 2012 different, two scenarios are possible after November, both of which cement the GOP economic agenda as the norm. Let us take the Armageddon approach for Democrats first. President Willard Mitt Romney is sworn in as the 45th President in January 2013, leading a party determined to undo several key Democratic legislative successes. First on the list is the hated ‘Obamacare’, which Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell helpfully timetable for quick reconciliation votes. Using the parliamentary procedure means that veto proof majorities are not needed in the Senate and, although they can’t repeal the health care legislation completely, they can gut it effectively enough to render it all but useless.
At the same time, President Romney tasks Vice President Ryan with herding a limited government budget through Congress. The new Vice President managed to get his former colleagues in the House to vote for virtually identical budget proposals before without too much difficulty; as the election was all about deciding between reducing spending and socialism there’s now a mandate for something that looks like Ryan’s previous budget proposals. The people have spoken, after all, and woe-betide anyone who doesn’t listen to what the people want. Yes, of course the electorate will suddenly see the squeeze on spending affecting them, the abstract will, by November 2014, have become the personal, and we may well see another wave election sweeping the Democrats back into control of the House and/or the Senate. But it will be an election fought on GOP ground, much like every election since 1980.
Our second scenario sees Obama victorious and Harry Reid gets to keep his big office, even if it means Joe Biden might have to spend a bit more time on Capitol Hill as a 51st vote. The only sad spot is the failure to take the House and the realisation that Nancy Pelosi may not be the woman to lead them to victory in 2014. But she’s had her moment in the sunshine as the first female Speaker, so the tributes are fulsome. Now ends the happy times. Imagine a replay of the last two years, with Obama becoming increasingly embattled defending health care reform, yet more ‘fiscal cliffs’, further Republican attempts to cut taxes and spending all at once, and with the Democrats still failing to articulate what the alternative is and why it matters.
In this scenario, 2014 will not be a pleasant year for Democrats. In the Senate, it will be re-election time for those Democrats elected in the heady days of 2008. Democrats have to defend 20 seats compared to the GOP’s 13, with many of them in hostile territory – Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Begich in Alaska. We have to wait and see the outcome of 2012, but it’s safe to say that the GOP will need to pick-up just one or two seats for Harry to lose his big office, or they may simply be adding to an existing majority. As for the House, only once since 1945 has an incumbent President’s party increased its number of seats at second-term mid-term. Democrats gained 5 seats in 1998 in the aftermath of the impeachment push. The omens are not favourable for Democratic gains in 2014 with a President Obama still in office, with an average loss of 21 seats for the incumbent President’s party. Cue another two years of Democrats in siege mode and Republicans setting the economic agenda.
Which gets us to 2016. Is it Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal or Rand Paul who gets the nod from Republicans? Economists are fairly certain that, no matter who wins in November, the economic conditions we face today will not have materially changed in four years’ time. Yet the electorate continues to believe that Presidents have some omnipotent power over the economy. After another four years of anaemic growth, stagnant wages and loss of faith in the American Dream, Obama will truly be to blame, the Democrats will be facing a hostile electorate and the Republicans will have spent the same four years furthering Paul Ryan’s budget proposals as articles of faith, establishing them as the economic norm. Rand Paul for President?
The paradox at the heart of the Republicans’ ‘victory’ in 2012 is that it is balanced by their defeats on the social front, all the more ironic as it is on the social front that the parties have battled hardest since Pat Buchanan had his fifteen minutes of fame back in 1992. It may well be these ‘defeats’ for Republicans that saves Obama and allows Democrats to fight another day. On gay marriage, immigration, women’s issues, even increasingly on environment issues, the GOP is losing or has, often implicitly, conceded defeat. Demographic changes mean that gay marriage has rapidly become accepted in the US, and Latinos will spurn the party for generations unless it changes its stance on immigration. The GOP platform continues to pay lip service to the culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s, opposing as it does, gay marriage, abortion (even in cases involving incest and rape), and being generally anti-immigrant. But actions speak louder than words. The silence of Republicans when President Obama came out in favour of gay marriage, and the collective intake of breath when Todd Akin’s comments about ‘legitimate rape’ steered the party’s focus away from the winning message of the economy towards the losing message of culture demonstrate how some Republicans recognise that the social front is for the base, not for building a winning coalition.
The victory of limited government is a consequence of the Democrats’ failure in intellectual terms. Who is their great economic thinker or visionary? Who makes the intellectual case for government? The victory of limited government may well have just as much to do with GOP failures under George W. Bush when the notion of limited government took a temporary leave of absence from Republican orthodoxy, save for the required tax cuts. Paul Ryan now says that he is embarrassed by, and sorry for, this straying from fiscal responsibility. It may yet prove to be that his votes (and those of his fellow Republican Congressmen and women) to expand the deficit to record levels in the first decade of the 21st Century, and the Democrats’ expectancy that no sane person would believe that Ryan’s budget could ever become the norm, paved the way for him and his fellow Tea Party-goers to claim another generational victory for the GOP in economic and fiscal matters.