Mitch McConnell and John Boehner’s strategy worked

October 30, 2012

I've spent the morning reading various endorsements of Mitt Romney for president, and they all say the same thing: Mitch McConnell and John Boehner's strategy worked.


(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Okay, that's not quite how they put it. But it's precisely what they show. In endorsement after endorsement, the basic argument is that President Obama hasn't been able to persuade House or Senate Republicans to work with him. If Obama is reelected, it's a safe bet that they'll continue to refuse to work with him. So vote Romney!

That's not even a slight exaggeration. Take the Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest and most influential paper. They endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008. But this year, they endorsed Romney.

Why? In the end, they said, it came down to a simple test. "Which candidate could forge the compromises in Congress to achieve these goals? When the question is framed in those terms, Mitt Romney emerges the stronger candidate."

The paper goes on to note that "early in his administration, President Obama reached out to Republicans but was rebuffed." The problem, they say, is that "since then, he has abandoned the effort, and the partisan divide has hardened." I'm not sure that's an accurate read of the situation — Obama spent most of 2011 negotiating with John Boehner — but that's neither here nor there. The point is that's how the Register sees it, and it stands in contrast with Romney, who "succeeded as governor in Massachusetts where he faced Democratic majorities in the legislature."

The Orlando Sentinel also endorsed Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012, and their reasoning is similar to the Register's. "The next president is likely to be dealing with a Congress where at least one, if not both, chambers are controlled by Republicans," they write. "It verges on magical thinking to expect Obama to get different results in the next four years."

In the New York Times, David Brooks's endorsement is titled "The Upside of Opportunism." The opportunism he's endorsing is Romney's. But the opportunism that led to his endorsement is the House Republicans'.

Predicting a second Obama term, Brooks begins with the fiscal cliff. "Obama would first go to Republicans in the Senate and say, 'Look, we’re stuck with each other. Let’s cut a deal for the sake of the country.' He would easily find 10 Republican senators willing to go along with a version of a Grand Bargain. Then Obama would go to the House. He’d ask Eric Cantor, the majority leader, if there were votes for such a deal. The answer would probably be no."

Romney, Brooks says, would also begin his term by heading to Congress and asking members of the other party for cooperation on a fiscal deal. The difference between him and Obama, Brooks thinks, is that Romney would get that cooperation. So vote Romney.

There's nothing wrong with the logic of these endorsements. Congressional Republicans really have been implacably opposed to working with Obama and that's meant Obama hasn't been able to get much done since Boehner was sworn in as speaker. At times, it's been even worse than gridlock. The Sentinel notes that "with Obama in charge, the federal government came perilously close to a default last year."

It was, of course, the Republicans who pushed the country to the brink — Obama would've signed a clean debt-ceiling increase at any moment, and he ended up making more concessions than any president in history to sign the final debt-ceiling increase — but it's true that congressional Republicans wouldn't have done that if a Republican was occupying the White House. So vote Romney.

Obama ran for president promising to break the gridlock and overcome the partisanship that paralyzes Washington. But it wasn't up to him. The minority won't cooperate with the majority unless they see it's in their interests. And the Republican minority didn't see it that way.

"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," Mitch McConnell said. “The purpose of the minority is to become the majority," said Rep. Pete Sessions, head of the National Republican Campaign Committee.

These endorsements are proving Republicans right. As they show, the Republican strategy to deny the president any cooperation and make his Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place has done Obama enormous political damage. In that way, the endorsements get the situation backwards.

While it's true that President Romney could expect more cooperation from congressional Republicans, in the long term, a vote against Obama on these grounds is a vote for more of this kind of gridlock. Politicians do what wins them elections. If this strategy wins Republicans the election, they'll employ it next time they face a Democratic president, too, and congressional Democrats will use it against the next Republicans. Rewarding the minority for doing everything in their power to make the majority fail sets up disastrous incentives for the political system. 

There are good reasons to endorse Mitt Romney for president. But if you want the political system to work more smoothly, endorsing McConnell and Boehner's strategy over the last four years is folly.

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Brad Plumer | October 30, 2012