Debates don’t lead to deals

August 23, 2012

Tom Friedman had a nice line in his Tuesday column. Responding to the drumbeat of pundits exulting in the possibility for "a real debate" in this election, Friedman snapped, "We need more than debates. That’s all we've been having. We need deals."

Yes, the italics are in the original.


Washington in one photograph. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

When I talk to legislators from both parties, I tend to hear some variation of the following: "This is a choice election. The American people are getting two very different visions and they're going to pick one of them."

That's fine as far as it goes. But in a political system with three branches of government, a bicameral legislature with a supermajority provision in the upper chamber, and staggered elections, it doesn't go very far. In a parliamentary system of government, the fact of being chosen implies the power to govern. In our system of government, it doesn't. President Obama could win reelection and find himself facing Speaker Eric Cantor.

Which is why my standard follow-up question is, "If you think this is a choice election, will you let the other side govern if they win?" No one has ever said yes.

Moreover, the election is likely to be a close one, with the winning margin coming from a particularly disengaged sliver of the electorate concentrated in 8-12 swing states. An Ohio steelworker who isn't too happy with how things are going but can't bring himself to vote for a former private-equity guy may end up choosing Obama without supporting much on Obama's actual agenda.

Elections are a moment when voters choose between different political candidates. They're not a moment when voters choose between different political systems. And the gridlock we're seeing right now is built into the political system.

My view is that if Romney wins, Republicans are likely to carry the Senate and the House, too. He won't need to make deals with the other party. If Obama wins, Republicans are likely to hold the House, so he will need to make deals with the other party. And it's not at all clear to me how those deals will get made.

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Sarah Kliff | August 23, 2012