As they crisscross Iowa and New Hampshire, the Republican presidential contenders are promising impatient audiences that they will slash government more aggressively than any nominee since at least Ronald Reagan in 1980, if not Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Simultaneously, a Republican House of Representatives dedicated to that same cause is limping out of Washington with some of the lowest approval ratings ever recorded.
The implications of the latter for the former have not surfaced in any of the candidates’ debates this year. But the dismal public verdict on Congress’ performance — capped by the House capitulation Thursday over extending President Obama's payroll-tax cut — points to the clear likelihood of a formidable expectations gap even if the GOP wins the White House and unified control of Congress.
Put simply, the Republican presidential candidates are promising a level of change that will demand a landslide majority in an election that is unlikely to provide it, absent another economic downturn before November 2012. In a closely divided country, Republicans face a growing danger that even if they oust President Obama, hold the House, and capture the Senate, their reach will vastly exceed their grasp.
Collectively, the GOP’s presidential field of 2012 is promising to assault the barricades of federal influence like a human wave. Rick Perry would eliminate three Cabinet departments (he has now written them on his palm) and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Ron Paul would shutter five departments. Newt Gingrich says he will completely abolish taxes on capital gains and dividends, create an optional 15 percent flat tax, haul federal justices before congressional committees, and, along the way, partially privatize Social Security by allowing workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into voluntary private investment accounts.
Mitt Romney, campaigning with one eye on the general election, has been more cautious. But even he is promising to pass a balanced-budget amendment that would cap federal spending at a tight 20 percent of the economy, convert Medicaid into a block grant, and eliminate capital-gains and dividend taxes for families earning less than $200,000. Romney and Gingrich, along with all of their rivals, also pledge to repeal Obama’s financial-regulation and health care reform laws. And—oh, yes—both men have promised to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system, albeit one that allows seniors the option of remaining in the traditional system (although likely at increased cost). On Sunday, they will rest.
The ambition of these agendas reflects both the GOP’s swelling confidence after its historic 2010 gains and the cresting internal influence of tea party activists. The unrelenting demand from tea party House freshmen for confrontation in the service of retrenching Washington (or “extremism in the defense of liberty,” as Goldwater famously thundered), has driven the action in Congress all year. The uprising that temporarily forced House Speaker John Boehner to renounce the deal that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated to extend the payroll-tax cut was at least the fourth such rebellion on the right that compelled the beleaguered Boehner to publicly change course this year.
Along the way, House Republicans have displayed parliamentary levels of party discipline to pass a panoramic conservative agenda highlighted by a budget that replaced conventional Medicare with a premium-support system. And yet they have been unable to generate enough public support for their agenda to pressure the Democratic-led Senate to act on its major elements. If anything, the House’s aggressive tactics, symbolized by the brinkmanship over raising the federal debt ceiling, have helped depress Congress’s approval rating to unprecedented lows. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page fretted this week that a year of these maneuvers has increased the odds that Obama will win reelection and Democrats will hold at least one congressional chamber.
That’s correct: Obama’s position, while still tenuous, is stronger than last December partly because House Republicans are providing him such a profitable foil. Given the depth of economic discontent, the GOP retains a reasonable chance of winning the White House and both chambers next year. But even if it does, the odds are high that the majorities in the House and Senate will be narrower than today and that the next president will win a more precarious victory than Obama engineered in 2008.
It was only last year that Obama suffered a severe backlash after he pursued his own ambitious agenda with much bigger congressional majorities (and a more emphatic victory himself) than Republicans are likely to enjoy in 2012. The GOP candidates have doggedly placed that precedent out of mind. But as the United States reverts to the 50-50 nation that characterized its politics from Bill Clinton through George W. Bush, the risk of overreach is mounting for GOP contenders pledging to topple not only Obama’s constructions but also pillars of the Great Society and the New Deal.
That could help Obama survive next year. But even if Republicans sweep the board in 2012, they will forget at their peril Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority.”