Gridlock wins

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 6, 2012


Regardless of who wins today, the next President of the United States will find it very difficult to overcome gridlock in Congress.  Despite losing a few seats, Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives. Democrats will stay in control of the Senate. A divided government with weak incentives to bargain and reach agreements will make life especially difficult for the next President.


During the last weeks of the campaign, President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney have repeatedly stressed that a president must show leadership by building bipartisan compromise to face the complex fiscal and budget challenges that loom over Washington.  Obama has insisted that, as a President, he made every effort to compromise with the Republican leadership.  His opponents argue that Obama was a partisan leader who pushed through Congress a health reform without any Republican support. Mitt Romney has used his experience as governor of Massachusetts to present himself as a leader who can reach across the aisle and work with the other party.  Democrats have responded by arguing that Romney was more moderate then and by contrasting the willingness of Massachusetts democrats to compromise with the more confrontational positions adopted by Republicans in Congress.


If most statistical models that predict elections are right, Obama will win re-election today.  Those same models predict that Republicans will retain control of the House and Democrats will control the Senate. Thus, President Obama will not be the only leader returning to Washington in January. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will also be returning to their positions in January.  There is no indication that the status quo of gridlock will change.


In 2004, immediately after winning re-election—and with the Republican party holding on to majority control in the House—President Bush declared that he had earned political capital and was determined to spend it.  He announced that he would push for a social security reform that would partially privatize it. A few months later, his administration was already on the defensive and Bush’s aspirations to reform social security were gone. 


If he wins re-election, Obama will probably be less ambitious.  He knows that he will have a hard time finding compromise with Congress. A Mitt Romney defeat will be seen by the conservative wing of the Party as a signal of their need to move further right. If their initial objective was to deny Obama of re-election, their new goal will be to render Obama’s second term ineffective.  If Romney were to surprisingly win, Democrats will adopt an obstructionist strategy.  The more liberal wing of the party will adopt the same uncompromising position championed by extreme Republicans during Obama’s first term.


The urgency of the fiscal crisis looming over Washington should provide an opportunity for compromise if today’s winner is able to make concessions across the aisle and hold at bay the more extreme voices in his own party. Before January 1, Congress has to agree on a spending resolution and must find a way out of the automatic spending cuts and tax increases due to kick in at the end of the year.  If Congress does not act, the negative impact on the U.S. economy will send the country back to a recession and might permanently cripple America’s ability to remain as the world leading economy.


Tonight, when the election results are announced and a winner is declared, the most important thing to watch will be the tone of the victory speech.  The next president of the U.S. will need to send a message of compromise and dialogue across the aisle. The ability to deliver that message and the capacity to lead a compromise will be the first test the newly elected president will face.


If for any reason, there is no clear winner tonight and the election moves from the polling both to the courts, the fiscal crisis clock will begin ticking. As parties struggle in court to win the election, time will run out for Congress and the White House to reach a compromise. If there is a winner tonight, the new president will have a very difficult challenge ahead. Working to build compromise will not be easy regardless of who wins. Gridlock will be the permanent status in Washington in the next couple of years. However, the situation will be much worse if there is no clear winner today. Things can always be worse.  The certainty of gridlock is not a good prospect for the next presidential period. But uncertainty about who wins the election is a much worse outcome.


As Obama and Romney frenetically campaign in the last hours, the effort both men have put into this race is evident in their faces and body language. However, the efforts the next president will have to make to overcome gridlock will far exceed all the efforts they made in the campaign. Overcoming gridlock in Washington will be much more difficult than winning what has turned out to be a narrow election.