The following was originally published in The Washington Monthly.
President Obama obviously faces a difficult (though far from hopeless) battle for reelection. What is less obvious from reading campaign coverage at this point in the election cycle is that, if he fails, it is also unlikely that his party will be able to retain its Senate majority or retake the House. There are twenty-three Democratic-held Senate seats up for contest next November to only ten Republican. Record- low approval ratings for the GOP Congress may mean some Democratic pickups in the House. But GOP gains at the state level in 2010 have given them enough control in enough states to dominate redistricting in a way that has built firewalls around some of their most vulnerable House members. The rest comes down to turnout: if enough conservative voters show up at the polls to unseat Obama, chances are they will have the same advantage in doing damage to Democrats in Congress.
If Obama loses, Republicans will probably control, if narrowly, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the second time in a decade. When that last happened, under George W. Bush—with a nine-seat House majority and a tied Senate— the party succeeded in passing major tax cuts but failed to reduce the size of government or roll back the welfare state, despite riding into town on its usual small-government rhetoric. So too during the Reagan years, when the White House and the Senate (though not the House) were in Republican hands. During both these periods of GOP dominance, entitlement and other programs grew substantially.
The question is, would this time be different? We believe the answer is yes, because of the Republican Party’s shift to the right and its demonstrated willingness to bend, break, or change legislative rules and customs that have stood in the way of radical change in the past.
This will be the case even if the candidate who defeats Obama is Mitt Romney—in our view the only plausible contender in the Republican field who could conceivably garner the nomination and prove an acceptable alternative to the incumbent. (And it would most surely be the case if Gingrich, a proven radical, becomes the nominee and, by some fluke, beats Obama.) While Romney is sufficiently protean in his ideological positioning and stance on particular issues to introduce some uncertainty over precisely what he would attempt to accomplish in office, his recent speeches have outlined a policy agenda well outside the old mainstream and wholly in sync with the new Zeitgeist of his party. Romney is now no less conservative in his positions on taxes, spending, Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, financial regulation, and the overall role of government than his contenders for the presidential nomination and the party establishment in Congress.
Whoever is the standard-bearer, a Republican victory in 2012 would do nothing to reverse or restrain the radically rightward march of the party. The Tea Party movement has accelerated a process that has been under way for many years within the GOP, which is now firm in its identity as the insurgent party, set upon blowing up policies and public responsibilities that enjoyed bipartisan support for many decades. The Democrats are the status quo party— protective and pragmatic. The asymmetric polarization of the two camps is the most significant feature of contemporary American politics.
A President Romney would be in a poor position upon taking office to change the course outlined in his campaign. He is already suspected as an infidel by many Republican activists. His fiscal policy would almost certainly be ambitious, one not unlike the budget resolution written by Representative Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans. Indeed, this is the course Romney has taken with his professed economic plan, released in early November. If Romney tried to dilute his own proposal, he would be met at the beginning of his presidency with a full-scale revolt on his hands from his own party, both in and out of Congress.
So here is one plausible governing scenario for 2013: After an election in which Republicans prevail, a lame-duck President Obama in December of 2012 lets all the Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 expire. Starting in January of 2013, House Republicans begin a process not only to reinstate all those tax cuts but to forcefully roll back government. Though the 2012 elections have shrunk the House’s Republican majority, that majority is also farther to the right because many of its members are Tea Party types who barely survived tough primary fights from challengers who accused them of having “gone Washington”—that is, voted for a continuing resolution or a debt limit deal. As a result, Speaker John Boehner’s clout is even more eclipsed by “Young Guns” Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, making bipartisan compromises even less likely. So the House passes a budget that is akin to Paul Ryan’s plan, one that massively cuts taxes while repealing most elements of the Affordable Care Act, moving Medicare toward a premium support system for private insurance, turning Medicaid into a block grant to the states and eventually cutting its federal funding by as much as 35 percent, and enacting draconian cuts in discretionary domestic spending.