Among the loose ends that President Obama and Mitt Romney should be pressed to address in their second debate are the mixed signals each sent in round one about how they would work with the other party after November.
One of the first debate’s most jarring moments was the impassioned defense of bipartisanship that Romney delivered shortly after he reaffirmed a critical policy position that essentially precluded such cooperation on the biggest legislative challenge awaiting the next president. Obama in turn was utterly opaque, as on many other subjects, about how he would approach the GOP in a second term.
Pursuing moderate voters, Romney pointed to his experience as a Republican governor in blue Massachusetts as evidence he can work with Democrats. And he insisted, as a point of principle, that big policy changes should not be imposed without cross-party support: “Something this big, this important,” he said of health care, “has to be done in a bipartisan basis.”
Romney’s remarks overstated his bipartisan outreach in Massachusetts, which ebbed as he moved toward seeking the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But by the elastic standards of presidential debates, the exaggeration wasn’t excessive. Nor was the problem the principle that Romney enunciated. Shrewd political leaders have recognized that big changes demand broad support ever since Thomas Jefferson declared “great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority.”
The problem is that Romney embraced that admirable principle even as he reaffirmed a position on taxes that undermines it. In the debate, Romney “absolutely” reaffirmed his primary-era insistence that he would not accept a budget deal that contained $10 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases. Yet by precluding revenue, Romney guaranteed that if he wins in November, the 2013 budget debate would devolve into the full-scale partisan confrontation that he promised, moments later, to avoid. Only a budget deal that balances spending cuts with new revenue can attract meaningful support from both parties. For Romney, the debate was a “read my lips” moment in renouncing that approach.
By rejecting revenue, Romney also ensured scorched-earth Democratic resistance to his proposal to transform Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system. Most Democrats will always oppose that idea. But some might consider it if it maintains the conventional Medicare system as a viable option and is also embedded in a balanced deficit-reduction plan. So long as Romney rejects revenue, he can’t meet that second condition. And no matter how many bipartisan breakfasts a President Romney convenes, he isn’t likely to attract many (if any) Democrats to other priorities, such as repealing Obama’s health care and financial reforms or transforming Medicaid. In Denver, Romney promised peace while reaffirming an agenda that virtually ensures war.
Obama during the debate didn’t reveal any sort of agenda, or much optimism about better relations with the GOP if he’s reelected. He justifiably grumbled that the health care plan that Republicans reviled was rooted in GOP ideas (like Romney’s own Massachusetts proposal). But when asked about bridging partisan divides, Obama said less about reaching out to Republicans than standing up to them.
That fits Obama’s populist campaign message designed to mobilize his base. In his budget negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner during last year’s debt-ceiling crisis, however, the president accepted spending cuts difficult for most Democrats (so long as they were tied to new revenue). If reelected, Obama would almost certainly pursue such a deal again. Which means that for contrasting political reasons, Romney probably overstated, and Obama understated, his willingness to deal across party lines next year.
The paradox is that while neither party really wants to cooperate, Americans are signaling that they don’t trust either enough to provide it a blank check. The election will likely leave both congressional chambers more closely divided than they are now. In the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, 55 percent of likely voters said that if Obama wins they would prefer that Republicans hold at least one congressional chamber to constrain him; 62 percent said they would prefer Democratic control of at least one chamber to check Romney.
Does this mean that Americans prefer gridlock? Another survey response suggests not. Asked why Washington had not done more to create jobs, a majority said it was because conflict between Democrats and Republicans had blocked good ideas. These results point toward a critical mass of voters who want to empower each party to restrain the other—but want them to use that leverage to force agreement rather than stalemate.
Neither candidate last week offered much insight about how he would navigate this complex landscape. That’s understandable. Debates are about ends, not means; aspirations, not concessions; vision, not tactics. But when it comes to governing, the latter, in each case, matters as much as the former. Across all the difficult issues confronting the U.S., the challenge for the next president will be building a working majority for progress in a country that is deeply divided—and that in November will likely again reveal itself to be very closely divided, too.
This article appears in the October 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.