Election no game-changer but may spark budget deal, panelists say

Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com

The 2012 elections mainly extended Washington’s status quo, though it is the Republicans who will do the most post-election soul-searching of the kind that could open new opportunities for a budget stalemate breakthrough.

So asserted four scholars speaking Wednesday morning at the Brookings Institution, as the final tallies continued following an election night that gave President Obama a second term with the same divided control of Congress he faced during the past two years.

Obama had a “decisive electoral college win of at least 303 votes and more than half the popular vote with a 2.5 million margin, while the Republicans lost three Senate seats,” noted Thomas Mann, a Brookings senior fellow in governance studies. But this “vindication of pollsters” leaves a status quo as it rested in May, and “if anything, it points to an exacerbation of partisan voting and no new coalition building” or a move to the center, he said. “If the mandate didn’t mean anything in 2008, it doesn’t mean anything in 2012.”

Among the losers this time around were Republican strategist and fundraiser Karl Rove, Mann said, predicting some “contributors remorse” among business leaders who donated money to the Republicans.

Because Republicans “gambled and lost in their scorched earth” strategy of opposing everything Obama wanted -- regardless of the harm to the economy or Washington’s public image -- Mann said he holds out some hope the president’s electoral success will give him an opening, for example, to pressure the Senate to reduce use of filibuster.

Isabel Sawhill, co-director of budgeting for national priorities at the think tank’s Center on Children and Families, largely agreed. Democrats have a new advantage because, “with the economy now in recovery -- barring a crisis around the fiscal cliff or in Europe -- Obama will benefit from the economic growth,” which will force Republicans to rethink some of their positions, she said. The $500 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that would hit in January absent a new budget deal is larger than the 2009 stimulus package and risks a new recession, she noted. “But Congress might find a way to go over the fiscal cliff temporarily with a deal that cuts taxes and cuts spending to reset the fiscal clock,” which might be in both parties’ interests, Sawhill said, adding “the key is willingness to compromise.”

Don’t expect much action in the lame-duck session, which is too short, she said. More likely, Congress will address in the short-term such issues as the alternative minimum tax and the payroll tax, which affect the 2012 tax season, and then “kick the can down the road.” Republicans have a “huge club in their hands” in the form of the debt ceiling that they are loath to give up, she added. “But Democrats could say, ‘Come to the table and compromise or we go off the cliff.’ ” Whether or not Obama has “the steel for that,” she said, it will be threatened.

Given more time for a long-term bargain, Sawhill said, the two parties could pursue what Obama has called “a balanced deal” of spending cuts and a tax hike -- though the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts already committed to since passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act probably would mean more on the revenue side, she said. That could come through a base-broadening tax reform like candidate Mitt Romney proposed, along with some entitlement reform spread over a decade.

Jonathan Rauch, guest scholar in governance studies, pointed to the voters’ approval of gay marriage ballot questions in four states, as well as two liberalizing use of medical marijuana. Gay marriage, he said, “is a microcosm of the Republican Party’s unpleasant place” on the budget and other issues in that a solid traditionalist wing is determined to oppose such social movements, thus preventing the party from attracting centrist voters needed to win.

Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the think tank’s Center on the United States and Europe, said, “even though national security is not a big part of the election, it’s obvious the United States has to show the world it is capable of getting its house in order -- and actually do it.

“There’s tendency to succumb to the notion that the United States can be absent while Congress is locked in gridlock,” he said. But meanwhile Iran will proceed to acquire nuclear weapons; U.S. troops will continue in Afghanistan (probably under a new name); and the Arab spring will require a U.S. response in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. Republicans, he added, will have to be talked to on revenues for national security reasons.

Because 90 percent of the electorate is “dug in,” Mann said, “talk of a grand bargain is naïve.” Given defiant post-election statements by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “we’ll see nasty, hardball politics” that won’t be eased if Obama merely invites his opponents to the White House “for bourbon,” he said. House members elected in safe districts are less interested in national progress if it doesn’t help them get reelected, panelists agreed.

But the parties usually come together “not out of love but because it’s in their interest,” Mann said. “Political reality can impose itself on recalcitrant parties,” and Obama “has a shot at it if he uses incentives and the bully pulpit to make a public case.”

Sawhill said she is “more optimistic” that there are still Republican moderates in the country, pointing to business leaders who are organizing to fix the debt and a recognition by some in the GOP of the country’s demographic changes. “But first they must go through the blame game,” she said, predicting accusations about the party picking the wrong candidate, the impact of Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s cooperation with Obama on disaster relief and the “liberal media.”

But in the end, she concluded, “the country benefits if both parties are strong.”

(Image via Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com)

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