Chicken Little May Be Right

One of the memes you are going to definitely hear a lot of if the presidential contest stays close and if the turnout machines and ad campaigns ratchet up interparty hostilities to whole next levels of hate and fear is that it really just doesn’t matter who wins. After all, between the features of our system that inherently frustrate political majorities and the objective difficulties of the problems the country faces, it’ll be Gridlock City either way. This observation, of course, is often paired with an injunction that both parties bend to some sort of Bowles-Simpson magic, but the underlying sense is that both parties are equally incapable of governing without pixie dust of some sort. (There is, of course, a very different school of thought that the election doesn’t matter because both candidates are advocates of the same basic ideology of corporate neoliberalism, but that won’t get any airing in the MSM).

Jonathan Chait, however, begs to differ, in a long and persuasive piece on the post-election plans of both candidates.

Like me, and most other liberal writers, Chait views all the recent talk from RomneyLand about “working with Congress” to come up with a detailed agenda as a complete charade designed to convey an attractive bipartisanship and disguise unpopular policy positions. The actual plan is the precise opposite: quickly enact an agenda that’s already been drafted and passed by the House.

Of the many secret post-victory plans floating around in the inner circles of the campaigns, the least secret is Romney’s intention to implement Paul Ryan’s budget. The Ryan budget has come to be almost synonymous with the Republican Party agenda, and Romney has embraced it with only slight variations. It would repeal Obamacare, cut income-tax rates, turn Medicare for people under 55 years old into subsidized private insurance, increase defense spending, and cut domestic spending, with especially large cuts for Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs targeted to the very poor.

Few voters understand just how rapidly Romney could achieve this, rewriting the American social compact in one swift stroke. Ryan’s plan has never attracted Democratic support, but it is not designed for bipartisanship. Ryan deliberately built it to circumvent a Senate filibuster, stocking the plan with budget legislation that is allowed, under Senate “budget reconciliation” procedures, to pass with a simple majority. Republicans have been planning the mechanics of the vote for many months, and Republican insiders expect Romney to use reconciliation to pass the bill.

True, if Republicans fail to win a Senate majority, this scenario gets a lot trickier, but as I argued last week, it’s more likely that a Romney administration and GOP congressional leaders would search to the ends of the earth for ways to buy a couple of Democratic senators instead of rethinking an entire strategy for a legislative revolution under the command of a Republican president deeply distrusted by conservatives.

Chait is more provocative in arguing that Obama has a post-election agenda as audacious as Romney’s: using the Big Stick of the “fiscal cliff” to force the GOP to choose between courses of action they’d otherwise never accept.

Last summer, Obama was pleading with Boehner to give him $800 billion in additional revenue. Come January, he’ll have $5 trillion in higher revenue without doing anything. Since Obama’s own budget proposes to raise only $1.5 trillion in new revenue and trim entitlement spending, he could then offer Republicans a deal that cuts taxes (by, say, a couple trillion dollars), increases military spending, and reduces entitlement spending. In other words, he could offer a right-wing bill—and the end result would be a mix of policies to the left of his own budget, and to the left of the Simpson-Bowles proposal.

Chait is a lot more confident than I am that Obama will be able to sell (or harder yet, convince Republicans to help him sell) an alternative fiscal agenda as a tax cut with increased defense spending, instead of a tax increase with defense cuts. But it’s a plausible scenario, or at least a lot more plausible than the official Obama expectation that an electorate defeat will “break the fever” of GOP extremism and make bipartisan action possible once again.

Putting aside the intentions of the two candidates, there are other “it doesn’t matter” arguments you hear. Some Democrats figure the next president will be massively unpopular, and would prefer a one-term Obama presidency followed by a real, enduring Democratic comeback in 2014 and 2016. Others think the next president will benefit from a cyclical economic recovery which will vindicate the great wisdom of his policies. And quite obviously, the long list of potential GOP presidential candidates who gave ’12 a pass were motivated in part by the willingness to concede this election and make ’16 The Big One.

And then there are a few Democrats I’ve talked to who really do buy the Moderate Mitt Meme and figure–particularly if he “lucks into” a Senate still controlled by Democrats–he’ll take office looking for any excuse to sell out his party, his allies, the people who financed his campaign, and all those earnest Foot Soldiers of Conservatism he is counting on in the battleground states. Personally, I find this assessment of Romney’s morality far harsher than anything I’ve ever suggested about the man. Even if it’s possible under some scenarios, I’d hardly bet the farm on any consequence of a Romney presidency other than a direct assault on the entire public policy legacy of the 20th century (with the exception, of course, of a hegemonic defense budget). Sometimes, Chicken Little is right: the sky is falling!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.