There’s a natural tendency, certainly shared by the MSM, that in an era of partisan gridlock, particular election results may not really matter. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, the reasoning goes, Ds will block him just as Rs have blocked Obama, even if you don’t buy the other Beltway mythos that the Great Big Adults of the GOP, heavily represented in Romney’s immediate circle, will quell the conservative beasts and bring back the happy days of “responsible” or “moderate” Republican rule.

The it-doesn’t-matter argument, of course, ignores a lot of contrary indicators, the most important of which are (a) the ability and willingness of Republicans to utilize reconciliation procedures to enact the Ryan Budget with its counter-revolutionary implications on a straight party-line vote, assuming they get control of both Houses of Congress; and (b) the slavish submission of Romney to the demands of movement-conservatives throughout the primary and general election campaign–demands that are not about to subside on Election Day.

But beyond these often-ignored considerations, there is a discrepancy between the agendas of the two parties that makes a lighting strike by the GOP potentially more momentous than anything Obama and Democrats could do if they hang onto the White house and at least a portion of Congress: it’s a lot easier to disable government than to build government up as an effective vehicle for addressing national challenges.

Yes, Republicans are concerned that Obamacare could become a politically unassailable new entitlement if it is fully implemented and allowed to stay in place for a significant period of time. But that’s a mighty big “if,” particularly given the opportunity Republicans will continue to have to sabotage Obamacare through funding decisions by the House (assuming they continue to control it, which is likely) and the states (where their dominant position is even less likely to change in November given the disproportionate impact of the midterms on the balance of power in most states).

And speaking of the states, the consequences of the 2010 elections for governance in the future are now beginning to reach the level of incalculable damage–damage that will be difficult to repair. TAP’s Abby Rapoport has an important reminder on that subject, focusing on Texas as an example:

In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding….

In 2011, the new, heavily Republican [Texas] legislature got to work pushing the agenda further to the right. With a huge state budget deficit and most lawmakers having taken the Grover Norquist pledge never to raise taxes, the radical Republicans used the deficit as an excuse to take an axe to public schools and family-planning programs. For the first time in modern state history, Texas lawmakers cut funding to schools—by a whopping $5.4 billion over the two-year budget cycle. The Republicans cut funds for family planning by two-thirds, slashing the total from $111 million to less than $38 million for the two-year period. To make matters worse, the legislature also imposed new restrictions on the state’s Women’s Health Program, a Medicaid-funded program serving low-income women who are not pregnant. Planned Parenthood was barred from receiving funds.

Rapoport goes on to note the self-perpetuating nature of big education disenvestments, and the lasting impact of steps that destroyed the infrastructure for family planning and women’s health providers. Voters this year and even in 2014 may not yet fully comprehend what’s already happened, particularly given the skill of conservatives in creating fun-house-mirror depictions of government even after it’s been shrunken at their hands.

A surgical strike on “the welfare state” (which is, as Paul Krugman rightly notes today, the real subject of the “referendum” Republicans have forced onto the political agenda) by a new if even narrowly Republican federal government, reinforced by Republican governors and state legislatures, could have an impact far beyond the next two-to-four years. That is, indeed, what the GOP now stands for after its final conquest by movement conservatives
following the 2008 elections (led by its radicalized Tea Party faction whose only focus is on such long-range strategic objectives, even if it’s at the expense of short-term electoral prospects).

Determined vandals of the public sector don’t need a lot of time or a lot of public support–much less any sort of explicit mandate–to work their will. Indeed, the underlying ethic of today’s conservative movement is that democracy should be eternally trumped by a permanent philosophy of limited government, laissez-faire economics, and pre-1960s public morality and family structure. Yes, some Republicans may think there is an abiding popular majority that can be built to implement and perpetually maintain their counter-revolution. But they won’t leave anything to chance–or to the evil designs of the 47%–so it’ll be lights out for the New Deal, the Great Society, and latter-day fads like marriage equality and reproductive rights–the very moment they get the chance.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.