For those convinced that President Obama doesn’t deserve any blame for the fiscal gridlock, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Mitt Romney was elected president, and was dealing with the same Congress that Obama has faced so much trouble in getting legislation to avert sequestration and myriad fiscal emergencies. Would a President Romney be confronting the same crisis?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but a look at Romney’s compromising tendencies with a Democratic Legislature as governor of Massachusetts suggest that things would look very different. Romney cut his business and political profile as a deal-maker, reaching bipartisan agreements on health care, environmental regulations, and taxes. He explicitly campaigned against sequestration, bringing it up at one of the presidential debates. Indeed, his work back home with Massachusetts Democrats was a late, if belated, argument in his campaign down the home stretch -- the theme of an expensive advertising buy.
More important, a close look at the composition of both the Senate and the House suggest the numbers would be there for Romney to pass some combination of spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes, as he called for in the 2012 campaign. In the Senate, Romney probably would have courted the 12 red-state Senate Democrats, six of whom are up for reelection in 2014, to support some type of compromise. In the House, his task would be winning over recalcitrant conservatives. If House Democrats were united in opposition, he could afford 17 GOP defections, probably more if the few remaining moderate Democrats joined with the GOP. It’s a little bit easier to do when your party holds the White House, as opposed to fighting in the minority.
The point of the thought experiment isn’t to relive the Romney campaign but to demonstrate there was a very plausible path for a Republican president to win support for a middle-ground budget proposal. The Senate has more red-state Democrats than blue-state Republicans, and most of them are up for reelection. These same Democrats who are giving Obama trouble on gun control would be looking to cut a fiscal deal as they prepare for reelection. Win over just five of them, hold enough House Republicans in line, and voila – there’s the bipartisan compromise. It wouldn’t be easy, but it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out the contours of such a deal.
For Obama to forge a similar path to Romney’s tax proposals would seem asinine to many of his supporters, particularly the base that helped get him elected. To give up raising taxes on the wealthy would, at first glance, be awful politics in the wake of a decisive victory over his opponent. And tax hikes on the wealthy, at least in the abstract, poll exceptionally well. But seeking an alternative plan more amenable to the GOP leadership – a combination of loophole closing and targeted spending cuts – could have potentially unpoisoned the Washington well and led to future compromises on the president’s other priorities, such as immigration.
To get significant legislation passed, presidents from both parties have found they need to take on their party’s most ideological supporters. Bill Clinton angered liberals by passing NAFTA and welfare reform. For his first legislative push, George W. Bush took on his base with the No Child Left Behind education law (with Edward Kennedy as a key partner) and a prescription-drug entitlement. George H.W. Bush famously took on his conservative base by breaking his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes. Obama has avoided challenging his liberal base on any issue, and that is partly why there’s such a large congressional divide in the first place. For the president, that might not be good politics, given how large a role the party base played in his two presidential victories. But it would make for better policymaking.