The big day is a week out. The campaigns and their allies are closing in on $2 billion spent; cable TV pundits are hoarse from months of spin and the urgency of the countdown; anxious partisans on both sides check daily tracking polls the way the superstitious look to their horoscope; the candidates are flying across the country nearly around the clock, appearing before ever larger crowds, their rhetoric raw, shed of any previous restraint.
Because, as everyone keeps saying, the stakes have never been higher.
Except they have been. Indeed, and I say this with some regret for spoiling the melodrama, the stakes have rarely been lower in a presidential race. This has to rank as one of the least consequential presidential elections in a long time.
Partisans on both sides will take strong exception to that claim. Certainly the campaign’s shrill atmospherics—the uncivil tenor of discourse, the amounts spent, the hyperbole on both sides—suggest Nov. 6 is an epic showdown. And there is no denying that hyper-partisan factions in both parties have a louder voice than ever, that the blue-red national divide seems more entrenched; that these two candidates don’t particularly like each other, and that a racially-tinged animosity towards President Obama remains a factor in the constant efforts to delegitimize him (for not really being American/Christian/one of us)—all of which has made this election season especially nasty.
But we shouldn’t confuse the heat of the contest and its surrounding rhetoric with the stakes involved. Compared to most presidential elections, the outcome on Nov. 6, will not be all that consequential to the nation’s future. And that’s partly because both candidates, despite partisan caricatures of this election pitting a socialist against a plutocrat, are pragmatic moderates. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are deliberate problem-solvers who relish gathering and analyzing data to inform decisions. Romney approaches problems as a Harvard Business School case study; Obama as a law school case to be socratically unpacked. Obama’s charisma and speaking abilities are prodigious, but neither candidate can be said to be a natural-born, back-slapping politico. They are cool technocrats. And neither candidate is an ideologue: Romney at heart remains a consultant and investor eager to turn things (in this case, government) around, to maximize efficiency and our return on our investment. Obama is at heart a mediator, eager to bridge differences between warring factions, at home and abroad, to find workable compromises.
The dominant issue on the domestic front in the next four years will surely be the effort to put Uncle Sam’s financial house in order. Congress will be pressed to address the year-end fiscal cliff even before the next presidential inauguration–but regardless of who takes office, the deal that stabilizes the nation’s deficits will likely look like the Bowles-Simpson approach, a modest effort to increase federal revenues coupled with a fairly aggressive move to control spending over the next decade, all greased by long-overdue tax reform. The specifics of the deal will be hashed out by the Congress, but dictated principally by the markets. And for all his conservative purism during the primary season, Romney, the practical businessman, is now making clear that his proposed tax cuts cannot be enacted at the expense of exacerbating deficits.
Regardless of where Congress ends up on marginal rates, tax reform, and spending, an emphasis on austerity mandated by a grand bargain across party lines means the next president will face little room to maneuver in terms of advocating expensive new programs or further tax cuts. He will be operating within a box.
Even if the next president weren’t forced to abide largely by a deal forced on them by Congress and circumstance, the campaign suggests that their own substantive differences aren’t quite as significant as the rhetoric implies. Only in America can you be depicted as a Communist for wanting the top marginal income tax rates to be 39%, but as a right-wing oligarch for wanting them to be 36%.
This should be one giveaway that the stakes aren’t particularly high this election: the Democratic incumbent owes his signal achievement to his Republican challenger. Sure, Romney talks of repealing Obamacare on day one, but that seems a rather hollow promise when you consider that the reform train has already left the station. The Supreme Court has blessed the reform; the insurance industry is capitalizing on it and states are scrambling to stand up their exchanges by 2014.
As he pivoted this fall to appeal to the general electorate, Romney, for his part, has been rattling off the list of Obamacare’s features that he would preserve, all the goodies like covering pre-existing conditions and allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans well into their 20s that are essentially paid for by the mandate. Sure, the bill could be tweaked here and there, especially since the Court thwarted its Medicaid provisions, but rather than a wholesale repeal of Obamacare, a Romney win would likely result in some marginal changes to induce more competition across state lines and a declaration of victory, that the legislation has been fixed.
Medicare did emerge in this campaign as a rare subject on which the candidates do have strongly differentiated positions. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan want to transform the system into a voucher-based program to introduce private competition. But given that each party will likely retain control over one chamber of Congress, the GOP’s Medicare reform plan is likely to follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s partial privatization scheme for Social Security, which is to say it’s headed nowhere anytime soon.
Immigration, another divisive domestic policy item in need of urgent action, is likely to play out with a series of modest, piecemeal reforms enacted in the next several years.
Three factors suggest progress on immigration even if Romney prevails, despite his stance on “self-deportation” during the primary season. First, in striking down large portions of Arizona’s notorious SB1070 law, the Supreme Court defanged state efforts to get into the business of policing immigration, leaving the ball back in Washington’s court. Second, GOP national leaders like Karl Rove and Jeb Bush (and the Mormon Church, interestingly) have been appalled at how adept their party has been at antagonizing America’s fastest-growing demographic group, and are eager to reverse that trend. And third, Romney will be in a better position than Obama ever was to sell congressional Republicans on the need to expand farm-worker and high-skilled visa allotments as well as other modest reforms such as the Dream Act, which allows the children of undocumented immigrants who’ve completed high school to attend college at in-state tuition rates.
The Republican rhetoric about Obama’s weakness hints at great foreign policy differences, but they have been hard to discern. The Republicans seem to accuse the administration of appeasing Iran and its nuclear aspirations, but when pressed Romney and his advisers have a hard time explaining how the already draconian sanctions imposed on Tehran could be any more draconian, or how our already close ties to Israel’s national security apparatus could be any closer. Obama has said all options remain on the table, including the use of military force, and the only way to out-toughen that stance would be for Romney to take the peace option off the table, saying he’d take us to war no matter what.
Of course Romney is not going to do that; he doesn’t have a genuine appetite to drag the United States into yet another war, but he is stuck with the challenge of portraying Obama as weak—hoping that accusing a Democrat as soft will stick as a cultural matter, never mind the record. Republicans accuse the administration of being too transparent in their desire (and timetable) to leave Afghanistan, but it’s not as if Romney is expressing an eagerness to prolong what is already the nation’s longest war. Nor is he strongly suggesting we rethink the pullout from Iraq.
Romney’s dislike of Russia seems genuine, whereas his China-bashing feels lifted from the same campaign handbook that advises candidates to spend a lot of time in Ohio. On the Al Qaeda front, Republicans can only echo Obama’s fondness for deploying drones to take out our enemies, even when in violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
The fact that Libya has taken up a lot of airtime during the campaign is a sign of how little of substance separates this relatively dovish Republican from the hawkish Democrat. Obama’s military intervention in that nation was another sign of sign of his assertiveness on the global stage, but the tragic killing of four Americans, including our ambassador, in the recent Sept. 11 attacks provided the Republicans an opening to portray the administration, fairly or unfairly, as being weak. The back-and-forth on consular security and the nitpicking of how the attack was spun hardly amounts to a clash of contrasting worldviews.
Policy and culture often become joined in landmark Supreme Court cases, and there is no denying the next president’s power to appoint justices to the Court (there are currently four justices in their seventies) will be hugely consequential, especially for a court that is currently split 5-4 on so many crucial constitutional questions.
Supreme Court nominations are always consequential, even if you can’t always predict how exactly they’ll impact future developments (as we saw in the case of a Bush selection who’d been opposed by Senator Obama upholding Obamacare as chief justice), and reason enough to declare any presidential election consequential. Gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, and the continued access to courts by plaintiffs’ lawyers to police corporate America remain crucial issues before the Court.
So it would be ludicrous to suggest that this presidential election doesn’t matter—they all do. But relative to most others, including 2004 and 2008, when larger questions of war and peace and a choice of economic programs loomed, this one feels small.