Bipartisanship in a Romney Administration

I’ve probably yelled enough about the mendacity of Mitt Romney’s claims last week that he’d “sit down with Democrats” the day after the election and start charting a bipartisan path for the country. But Paul Ryan was up to it again last night, arguing that he couldn’t tell us how he’d pay for an across-the-board tax cut because that would be up to bipartisan negotiations in Congress (as though they could repeal the laws of mathematics!).

Most readers here are probably familiar with the relentless demonization of bipartisanship as “surrender” throughout the Republican primaries, and the specific pledges Romney made to remain faithful to policies guaranteed never to attract a single Democrat (from a repeal-and-reverse approach to health care, to the cut-cap-balance meta-pledge, to the many promises never to accept a tax increase). The most important pledge Romney made, in my opinion, is to sign Paul Ryan’s budget resolution as is if Republicans manage to whip it through Congress using reconciliation procedures, which would mean revolutionary changes in the structure and purpose of the federal government, adopted swiftly on a party-line vote.

But what happens if Romney wins and Republicans fall short of getting control of the Senate? Would this scenario enable him to break his promises and perhaps unleash that secretly moderate Mitt who’s been lying through his teeth the last five years or so?

I don’t think so. Even if Romney is so inclined (and I so no particular reason to believe he is), he’d be dealing with a highly mutinous House GOP and the bulk of a Senate GOP Caucus that would insist the new president use his leverage not to cut deals but to break skulls. Depending on the margin of Democratic control of the Senate, and the identity of the Democratic Caucus, there would almost definitely be an effort to buy a vote or two to put them in operational control of Congress, and with items like the repeal of Obamacare and the enactment of the Ryan budget on the table, they’d pay a pretty high price for treason. If that didn’t work, the combination of Republican control of the House, the presidential veto, and GOP filibuster power in the Senate would be used to squelch any Democratic legislation on even the most quotidian matter. With the entire bipartisan commentariat and the business community screaming for action to avert a “fiscal cliff,” Republicans would probably get their way on that set of threshold issues simply by way of superior leverage. And even without congressional support, a new administration could probably paralyze implementation of Obamacare via executive action and inaction.

Perhaps that’s as much as they could accomplish, but beyond that, you’d find a powerful sentiment among Republicans to withhold bipartisan action pending the midterm elections of 2014, when a more favorable electorate (in terms of turnout patterns) and another positive landscape for GOP Senate gains would make the final conquest of Congress a solid betting proposition. And on one big priority of the conservative movement–the final reshaping of the Supreme Court and the reversal of Roe v. Wade–the odds would be very good for a Romney appointment that would survive the Senate on traditional grounds of deference to the president.

More generally, from Romney’s perspective, the certainty of a wholesale uprising by his party’s “base” and its dominant congressional faction in the event of genuine “bipartisanship” would be a much bigger strategic problem than finding ways around a narrow Democratic margin in the Senate. Besides, if Romney does win, it will almost certainly be due to a tilting of the electorate that also makes a Republican Senate more likely than it appears to be today.

In any event, as I’ve said often, Obama and his entire campaign owe it to the country as much as to themselves to demand as many public concessions as possible, in advance, if Mitt and Paul intend to continue right down to Election Day professing their love for bipartisan negotiations. I doubt any real concession will be made, and perhaps it will finally dawn on the media if not the public that there’s really no way around a stark choice between two very different parties and agendas.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.