Had enough? Not of the candidates, the Congress or election coverage, though who could blame you if you have? Instead: Had enough of the negativism?
Voters on the left have spent the last month moaning about the negative ads underwritten by Super PACs created by the Citizens United ruling. Voters on the right have spent weeks complaining about the negative portrayal of former Gov. Mitt Romney by what they say is a liberal-leaning news media. But the real disgraces are the negative fusillades being fired by the candidates themselves.
So with just a month of campaigning and two presidential debates remaining, let’s abandon all that and put on rose-colored glasses. Let’s forget the negative images and our darkest forebodings and look for once at best-case scenarios. They might tell us something important. They might even, in a political year with few undecided voters, change some minds.
The case for Obama
A re-elected Barack Obama would surge with confidence, not the faux self-assurance in which a deeply inexperienced man bathed in 2009, but confidence in the knowledge that his election wasn’t a fluke or a national act of cleansing that voters hoped would wash away centuries of racial oppression and prejudice.
A re-elected President Obama also would feel pressure unusual for a second-term chief executive, most of whom immediately begin to worry about their place in history. Obama’s place in history was assured on Election Day 2008 — as a pioneer. Now he has to win a place in history — as a successful president. Big difference.
This is no easy task in any political atmosphere, but it’s especially daunting in today’s poisonous one.
For our purposes, let’s assume Obama’s re-election keeps the Democrats in power in the Senate and the Republicans in the House. So the capital on Jan. 20, 2013, is riven in two ways — the usual tensions between a president and the Congress and the additional tensions between congressional chambers controlled by rival parties.
A sense of crisis beckons, not only because the country approaches the fabled “fiscal cliff,” but also because Obama’s party seems blind to the coming entitlements crisis — Social Security and Medicare are in deep trouble and unsustainable in current form, despite what the Democrats say — while Republicans have embraced a proposal that the public finds scary and that deals only with Medicare, not Social Security.
Here is where crisis meets opportunity. A re-elected President Obama uses his State of the Union address to offer a grand bargain far more sweeping than the one that fell apart during fevered but fruitless negotiations last summer. He tells Republicans he’ll put everything on the table, including substantial changes in entitlements, if they’ll put everything on the table, including tax increases.
He promises to be fair-minded and says he knows that House Speaker John Boehner will be fair-minded as well. He tells Boehner privately that he’ll quell the catcalls from the left of his party if the speaker quells the demands from the right of his.
To prove his seriousness, Obama quotes Herb Stein, a man who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under two Republican presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), who was a voice favored by the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and who held an endowed university chair named for the father of the Rev. Pat Robertson. According to Stein’s Law, if something cannot go on forever, it won’t.
The case for Romney
The election of Romney represents perhaps the most dramatic shift in power in decades — greater than the transition between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan 32 years ago, because Carter basically governed as Reagan for the last several months of his administration. And, like Reagan, Romney approaches his challenge with determination but also with an upbeat, conciliatory attitude. He is a gentleman and he vows to treat his opponents in the capital with chivalry.
This goes a long way in Washington, D.C., as former President George H.W. Bush could tell him. But Romney enters the White House with a burden different from the one that weighed down Obama four years ago.
Romney is more manager than politician — that was evident in his awkward mien and his uncanny inability in recent months to master fundamental political arts, such as the artful dodge and the tactful feint — and it is as a manager rather than as a politician that he proceeds, and perhaps succeeds, in the White House.
America’s political problem today is at base a management challenge — how to adjudicate between polarized parties and among passionate politicians who see compromise as an indication of powerlessness rather than an act of patriotism. The new president trims some of his jagged political edges — all presidents do so, even Reagan — but holds fast to his core principle, which is that the United States government is poorly managed and that its current condition is insupportable and irresponsible. From that assessment, all things are visible and, perhaps, possible.
The choice from behind rose-colored glasses remains one between two men of good faith and honor, one with a gift for the inspiring speech, another with a gift for the detailed spreadsheet. Both abjure compromise, but both will have to compromise; the logic of Stein’s Law is too great and the political landscape too complicated to avoid compromise. Both have plausible ways forward but narrow openings to succeed.
In the end, the choice is between two dramatically different conceptions of government — and two dramatically different ways of moving forward.
Pulitzer Prize-winner and North Shore native David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.