This morning, at a rally in West Allis, Wis., Mitt Romney offered his final argument to voters. If you’ve heard a Romney speech before, there’s nothing here that will surprise you. As he has for most of the year, he hits President Obama for “failed leadership” on the economy and promises to accelerate the recovery with a five-point plan of tax cuts, spending cuts, increased energy production, new trade deals and repeal of the Affordable Care Act. On the whole, it’s the same basic plan Republicans have offered since 2000, and there’s no evidence that it will ameliorate the short-term problem of mass unemployment.
But, in addition to offering his plans for the future, Romney also took the time to hit Obama for his failure to build a bipartisan coalition for “change.” Romney describes Obama as the “most partisan” of presidents — “blaming, attacking, dividing.” He hits Obama for failing to “work across the aisle” and says that he has “made the divide wider.” He touts his record working with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts, and he promises to not “spend his effort passing partisan legislation unrelated to economic growth” — an obvious dig at Obamacare. He even promised to avoid the debt ceiling stand-off of last summer, which he blamed — unsurprisingly — on President Obama:
You know that if the President is re-elected, he will still be unable to work with the people in Congress. He has ignored them, attacked them, blamed them. The debt ceiling will come up again, and shutdown and default will be threatened, chilling the economy. The President was right when he said he can’t change Washington from the inside. In this case, you can take him at his word.
Of all the rhetorical paths he could take, this is the best one. Voters are frustrated with economy, they’re frustrated with congressional gridlock — which they blame, in part, for the slow recovery — and they’re frustrated with President Obama for failing to work with Republicans, the most dramatic example of which was the debt ceiling stand-off.
But what Romney fails to mention, and what voters don’t understand, is that gridlock was a deliberate strategic choice made by Republican lawmakers at the beginning of Obama’s term. This is well documented: Shortly after the 2008 election, GOP lawmakers met to devise a strategy for the next two years. As Michael Grunwald details in his book “The New New Deal,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the savvy decision to oppose all measures from the Obama administration, for the simple reason that voters associate “bipartisanship” with “good legislation.” If McConnell and his counterparts in the House can deny Obama bipartisan victories, they can tarnish his image and damage his standing with a public that craves cooperation.
It’s why a stimulus package heavy on tax cuts only received three Republican votes — and forced Arlen Specter out of the GOP — and it’s why the Affordable Care Act was passed by the skin of the teeth on a party-line vote. The content of these bills was less important than the political goal, which was to make Obama a one-term president, even if it kept Congress from doing anything to improve the economy.
The debt ceiling stand-off was this strategy taken to its logical extreme. Bucking tradition, Republicans in both chambers refused to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama and congressional Democrats acquiesced to large spending cuts. Eventually, both sides agreed to punt the issue — hence the fiscal cliff — but the fact remains that it was an unprecedented display of GOP intransigence that could have crushed the fragile recovery and plunged the United States into a second recession.
The unfortunate thing is that the Republican strategy worked. Romney can point to the last four years of gridlock and partisanship, say that he’ll fix it, and he’ll have a suddenly cooperative Republican House to work with. After all, the whole point of opposing Obama’s every step was to push him out of office.
With only a few days before the election, we’re looking at the closing act of a long con. Elect Romney, and he’ll break the gridlock caused by his party. Or, put another way, don’t try to negotiate for the hostage; just give the hostage taker what he wants.