There’s a strong case against Mitt Romney’s candidacy that has nothing to do with ideology. Which is probably a good thing, because no one really knows where Romney fits on the ideological spectrum, and if he really has any deeply held policy views at all.
My own sense, as I’ve written before, is that Romney’s party label tells us pretty much all we need to know about how he’d govern. He’s the nominee of a party that has adopted a far-right platform, and if he were to win he’d have little choice but to stick to it. Conservatives have long viewed Romney’s ideological credentials with skepticism; under a Romney presidency, they’d be perpetually on-guard for any hint of betrayal. Failure to govern as the conservative he swore he was during the GOP primaries would open a rift in the party and threaten to destroy his presidency.
But part of Romney’s appeal to swing voters is an assumption that he’s faking it – that he said the words he needed to say to win the Republican nomination, but that as president he’d revert to Massachusetts Mitt, the middle-of-the-road pragmatist who shunned culture war politics and wasn’t averse to working with Democrats. I have a hard time seeing this, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it actually is his intent. Even then – and even if you think this would work out OK for the country from a policy standpoint – there’s still a compelling reason to fear a Romney win on Nov. 6.
The basic problem has to do with the behavior of Romney’s party over the past four years – reflexive opposition and obstruction rooted in electoral strategy, not ideology – and the lesson that politicians from both parties would draw if it results in a one-term Obama presidency.
Essentially, Republicans looked around when Obama was sworn in and saw political opportunity. They had lost the White House and faced steep Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. In a way, this made them weak; they had no power to advance their own agenda. But it also gave them strength; they had considerable power to stall Obama’s agenda, and with economic anxiety rampant, it seemed logical to assume voters would blame the ruling party if things didn’t turn around quickly.
The result is that Republicans devoted themselves not to constructively criticizing Democratic proposals, crafting feasible alternatives, and accepting olive branches from the administration but instead to cranking up the hysteria and treating virtually every Obama initiative as a step toward socialism. They matched this with legislative obstruction, tying up scores of nominations, forcing a record number of filibusters, and forcing Democrats to pass their agenda on party-line votes.
The calculation was that Republican cooperation would signal to the public that progress was being made and that Obama was living up to his promise to change Washington. But if they railed against him and his agenda instead, Republicans would create an air of controversy around every Obama proposal and bring his approval rating down that much faster.
Mostly cut out of this equation has been policy. Congressional Republicans bitterly deride the stimulus, even though it was loaded up with tax cuts and infrastructure spending that Republicans had traditionally supported. But where was their viable alternative? Healthcare is even more egregious. Obama spent months cultivating Republican support and adopted a basic framework – an individual mandate that would strengthen private insurers – that originated on the right. Not only did they unanimously oppose it; they’ve still failed to produce their own plan to replace the Affordable Care Act – despite promising to do so for more than two years. And while they did rally around Paul Ryan’s long-term budget blueprint, Republicans have had nothing to say on the country’s immediate jobs crisis, offering only tired rhetoric about high taxes and wasteful government. And, as Jonathan Bernstein points out, they’ve offered nothing substantive on foreign policy, settling instead for fake scandals and symbolism.
If Romney wins in two weeks, Republicans may well find themselves with complete control of Washington again. And they will have achieved it by doing nothing but opposing, attacking and obstructing Obama. As Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann explain in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” this kind of conduct by an opposition party works in parliamentary democracies like Britain. But our system isn’t designed for it. If Republicans win back power with it, though, there’s no reason to think they won’t behave the same way again the next time Democrats claim power. For that matter, it’s possible Democrats will begin to behave the same way.
This last point is worth considering for a moment. There’s a school of thought that Democrats will always be open to entreaties from a Republican president, for the simple reason that they believe in an active and robust government. So, for instance, George W. Bush found Democratic support – sometimes significant Democratic support – during his first term, even though Democrats were still furious over how he’d won the presidency. But if Republicans succeed in making Obama a one-termer, who’s to say how Democrats will react – and if their party base will even allow any cooperation with President Romney? (Again, this is accepting the idea that Romney would even try to reach out.)
Elections shape the behavior of political parties. Recall that Bill Clinton got more cooperation from Republicans as he beat them (first with the 1995 shutdown, then in the 1996 election), to the point that Republicans ultimately went looking for their own Clinton in 2000, keying in on the affable George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatism. The GOP’s post-2008 behavior has not been healthy for our system of government. It’s troubling to think what might happen if it’s rewarded.