WASHINGTON INSIDER: Washington Braces for a Defining Election

By MarEx 2012-03-08 11:27:24


Posturing and gridlock are the order of the day as the two parties prepare for November.

The official launch of the Republican presidential primaries marks the beginning of a hyper-political election year dominated by sound and fury but little progress on the major problems plaguing the nation. The American electorate is in a foul mood with 65 percent saying the country is on the wrong track and 80 percent professing less trust in government. Congress’ approval rating dipped to an historic low of 13 percent and President Obama’s hovers at 48 percent.

In this disaffected environment, the political parties will likely define their differences rather than forging compromises to solve major problems. Moreover, the full force of unlimited campaign financing by Super PACS will likely fuel the fires of negative campaign advertisements like never before. Thus far, Super PAC spending in the Republican primaries has far outstripped that of the official campaigns. Because the nation remains deeply divided over major issues like taxes, spending, and national security, a decisive victory by either political party seems unlikely. Moreover, such an intensely negative campaign environment bodes ill for the prospect of post-election reconciliation, compromise and progress. 

Rather, it more likely sets the stage for continuation of the modern era of the perpetual campaign and the resulting political gridlock. And the nature of the American political system that divides power and allows a determined minority in the U.S. Senate to frustrate the majority’s will suggests more gridlock ahead, no matter what the outcome.

The Republican Party’s Nomination Process
Early signs point to a Republican nominating process favoring former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney over his more conservative challengers. So far, Romney has faced persistent skepticism of his bona fides from many Republican social and religious conservatives, who question his “authenticity.” A remarkable illustration of this phenomenon appears in a recent column by conservative commentator George Will, who opined that “discerning conservatives may decide that Obama probably has been rescued by the Republican nominating electorate.”

Nevertheless, if Governor Romney can solidify his nomination sooner rather than later, he will have more time to persuade skeptics within his own party and to rally the party around its principal common cause, the defeat of President Obama. In simple terms, for most Republicans this goal defines the sine qua non to realizing their shared future vision of the United States. And it appears at this stage that Romney’s strategy will be to pound Obama relentlessly on the sluggish economy and high unemployment while reassuring the social and religious conservatives of his own party that he can be trusted to steer the nation in a moral direction more to their liking.

More broadly, the Republican presidential nominee will surely emphasize the central themes of the Republican critique of Obama and congressional Democrats. Paramount among them is cutting taxes, followed closely by repealing Obama’s health care reform legislation, reducing the size of the non-security programs of the federal government, and refraining from new federal environmental and financial regulations. Romney has emphasized his critique that Obama has “poisoned” the American way of life by emulating European entitlement-style regimes. For his part, Romney promises to restore America to a society fostering his vision of free enterprise, economic opportunity and small town values.

Additionally, as the scope of the already agreed-upon bipartisan budget cuts to the country’s national security apparatus becomes more apparent, the Republican nominee will likely decry the cuts as further evidence of Obama’s “menu of mediocrity” for national defense. Not having been party to the bipartisan debt limit compromise, which set the mandated cuts in motion, the Republican nominee will likely feel no obligation to be bound by its terms and free to criticize the cuts as the product of Obama’s “appeasement” national security policy. Indeed, although the bipartisan political compromise has enshrined almost $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade, Romney promises to raise defense spending to four percent of gross domestic product by enlarging the active duty military by 100,000 members, increasing the Navy’s annual shipbuilding rate from nine to 15, reversing cuts to the national missile defense program, and fully deploying a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system. That will be quite a trick, given the current economic and fiscal realities.

Obama’s Political Response
Unlike the Republicans, Obama does not yet enjoy the benefit of a galvanizing purpose to unify his supporters. Nor can he simply run against a “do-nothing” Congress like President Harry Truman did in 1948, when his Republican opponents controlled both congressional chambers.  Obama’s critique of Congress will likely prove less effective since the Senate is Democratic. Additionally, Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to change Washington, which he has plainly failed to do. His unrealistic pledge to move beyond the politically divisive issues of the past proved to be fool’s gold. Today, his critics portray his policies, particularly health care reform and proposed increased taxes on upper income brackets, as provoking new divides rather than moving beyond old ones. 

Obama also does not benefit from the fortuitous political circumstance in which he found himself on September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the American electorate soured on the then-incumbent president’s party. In the ten days before that date, the opinion polls showed Senator McCain up to three points ahead, but thereafter public opinion swung ten points, resulting in a seven-point victory for president-elect Obama. McCain and his party, rightly or wrongly, were tarred by the brush of responsibility for the financial crisis. Obama now finds himself in a position akin to McCain’s: He risks being held responsible by the electorate for a country perceived to be on the wrong track. This circumstance will prompt his campaign and its Super PAC supporters to “define” the Republican nominee as favoring Wall Street over Main Street as well as a return to the policies that caused the financial meltdown.

So far, Obama and his supporters have found it useful to target unpopular congressional Republicans as obstructionist. And in large measure they have succeeded, faring much better in the polls since the debt limit showdown last August. Obama’s strategy unfolded more favorably than pundits envisioned last summer when his own supporters criticized him as too conciliatory in the face of threats by Tea Party Republicans to allow the U.S. to default on certain obligations. By holding firm in the showdown with House Republicans over extending the payroll tax cut in December, he put them in the unenviable position of owning a tax increase on the middle class at the start of an election year. 

If past is prologue, we will witness a replay of this showdown in February, and the tax cut and other popular provisions bundled with it will be extended with Obama taking credit. Obama’s political strategy presents him as the protector of the middle class against congressional Republicans who, he argues, are protectors of certain wealthy special interests. And it appears the same strategy will morph into a like comparison to the Republican presidential nominee. Obama and congressional Democrats will argue that the electorate should not return to office the party that gave the nation the financial crisis of 2008, the resulting Great Recession, and a decade of growing income disparity.

Beyond the Political Strategies
History does not signal a likely electoral outcome, and events yet unknown will likely shape the results in November. What stubbornly persists are the nation’s underlying problems. Economic growth in 2011 was an anemic 1.8 percent. Most importantly for the election, job growth has failed to keep pace with the growing number of Americans who need a job. Income disparity has grown as has the number of Americans living in poverty. The nation’s housing market remains weighed down by excess capacity as the mortgage crisis crawls to a painful resolution of losses realized. And while most Americans are firmly focused on their domestic problems, national security threats remain in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

The persistent deep divisions separating our nation’s political parties means that, like last year, the political arms of the national government will likely accomplish very little to solve the nation’s problems. Congress and the President spent almost all of 2011 wrangling over budget cuts and raising the debt limit rather than spurring growth and creating jobs. The President’s almost $447 billion jobs program proposed last fall fell flat as his Republican opponents steadfastly blocked it. Obama could not muster the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to enact any aspect of the proposal except for the two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, soon to be revisited.

Amidst this gridlock, key non-political arms of the federal government continue to function effectively, namely the Federal Reserve and the national security team. Following the financial crisis of September 2008, the Federal Reserve proved to be one of the most effective arms of government. Largely free from the political fray, it implemented policies promoting low interest rates, boosting liquidity, and ensuring the stability of the financial system. Despite its well-documented shortcomings, it proved the value of a strong and professional central bank authority. The contrasting example of Europe’s feckless central bank serves as a stark reminder of the importance of the Federal Reserve. 

Likewise, our nation’s national security team continued to perform professionally. It executed a successful withdrawal from Iraq and an effective surge in Afghanistan that has brought the Taliban to peace talks. The strategy to decapitate al-Qaeda appears remarkably successful as the terrorists operate in fear of drone strikes. To be sure, the future remains uncertain, but the national security professionals have performed admirably, notwithstanding the bitter political division at home.

Posturing Ahead
This election year promises mostly campaign posturing from the opposing parties. Compromises will likely be modest, just enough to get through the election. Progress on the deep-seated issues dividing Americans must await the results. Meanwhile, the professionals will carry on the day-to-day business of key government functions. – MarEx