There are cheery faces and upbeat appraisals from the White House and Capitol Hill on the prospects of a grand bargain. You do sort of get the sense that both sides are developing faux amnesia so that their respective bases can make a deal. After all if they make pretty much the same deal they could have done in the summer of 2011, the president in particular would look really silly.
So you get a lot of reports these days that insist that since Nov. 6, “when Obama won reelection and Democrats made gains in the House and Senate on a pledge to make the rich “pay their fair share,” Republicans have backed down from the fight. On Friday, McConnell and Boehner acknowledged the need for fresh revenue to restrain a public debt that has swollen to dangerous levels — as long as Democrats agree to tackle the rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid, the biggest drivers of future borrowing.” Well this actually occurred in the summer of 2011 when President Obama fumbled away a deal that included $800 billion in new revenue offered up by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
On one hand Republicans get mileage from offering something “new.” (Not really, but shhh!). Liberals can crow that the election forced Republicans to put revenue on the table. (That’s a story that mainstream media like very much, since they never credited Republicans in 2011 with putting revenue on the table first in the grand bargain negotiations and then in the supercommittee.) Boehner and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who proposed new revenue in the supercommittee, must be getting a chuckle.
This is not to say that the election didn’t serve a useful purpose in getting things unstuck. The vote for the status quo in the House, Senate and White House was in effect a vote to try again. And what better way to do it than to use the deal that got away last time?
The grand bargain talks are instructive as to why “the most important election” of our lifetimes usually isn’t where domestic policy is concerned. Whoever arrives or returns to the White House finds the table set to a large degree by previous positions, negotiations and events. It is only when the new president is accompanied by a change in one of both house of Congress (e.g., 1980) and there is an exceptionally skilled president (as Ronald Reagan was) that tectonic shifts can occur. Really, do we think that Congress would have reached agreement on a grand bargain that did not include new revenue if Mitt Romney had been elected?
This is not to say that elections don’t matter. The 2008 election, which brought us Obamacare and two news Supreme Court justices, is illustrative. A President John McCain (R-Ariz.) surely would not have championed an individual mandate plan or appointed Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. (And he might have gotten immigration reform done). Maybe the 2008 election will turn out to have been more critical than 2012’s.
Moreover, when it comes to presidential reelections, the losing party’s fears are often overblown in part because it is really hard to have an effective second term. The president is a lame duck as soon as the voting is complete, the second- and third-string players replace the worn-out first-string advisers, policy ideas tend to dry up and the second-term curse — the plethora of scandals and missteps ( Iran Contra, Hurricane Katrina, Bill Clinton’s impeachment) — often dominate the news. (You sometimes wonder if a single six-year term would work better.)
In other words, perhaps the Republicans in Obama’s second term can get a chunk of what they wanted in the first (tax reform, entitlement reform, etc.) They are not likely to be so successful on regulatory policy or judicial appointments, nor in effecting a course correction on foreign policy. Still, if Republicans can show some deal-making prowess, grab the initiative on immigration (no small ball on Dream Act-lite, though) and play defense where needed ( including exercising conscientious oversight of the executive branch), the GOP might do fine. Meanwhile innovative governors can do some policy experimentation and a new generation of leaders can mature. And the country might just make progress on long-standing problems as well.
It is an amazingly enduring government that the Founders gave it. Let’s try not to screw it up.