Saturday, November 03, 2012

Be careful what you wish for

With the election looming, many on the political right are eagerly hoping Tuesday will bring with it President Obama's ouster from the White House. But while Obama is richly deserving of defeat and his loss would bring emotional satisfaction, it's not obvious this is the optimal outcome for liberty-minded voters. Those of us who prefer our politics steeped in logic and rationality rather than flutters of the heart must approach this election bearing a number of factors in mind:
  • Losses sometimes carry with them a silver lining. For example, had Gerald Ford prevailed in 1976 against Jimmy Carter, it is unlikely Ronald Reagan would have been elected in 1980. Similarly, had George HW Bush won in 1992, Republicans almost certainly would not have captured control of the House and Senate in 1994 (thus paving the way for public policy successes such as welfare reform two years later and relative federal spending restraint for the remainder of the 1990s). A McCain victory in 2008, meanwhile, would have only delayed the inevitable, as Democrats surely would have won sizable victories in 2010 and 2012. Ask Democrats if they would rather have had Michael Dukakis win in 1988 than Bill Clinton in 1992.
  • One argument in favor of Romney's election is that it will prevent Obama from wreaking any further policy havoc and stymie his big government agenda. But that's a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped. The worst has already taken place: stimulus, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare -- that's already done and unlikely to be repealed. Indeed, recall that if Romney is elected he will very likely face a Democratically-controlled Senate in absolutely no mood to cooperate with him.
  • A Romney administration presents a rather limited upside. Lacking a mandate and facing a Democratic Senate, Romney is far more likely to resemble a second coming of Bush 41 than Reagan. Given roadblocks in Congress, Romney's chief impact will be felt in areas such as foreign policy (where he does not appear to be terribly different from Obama), an improved trade agenda (assuming of course, that his talk of standing up to China is just election year blithering) and relatively small-bore items such as expanded domestic energy exploration. Regulation is more likely to take a pause than dramatically be scaled back.   
  • A Romney victory does, however, bring with it tremendous potential downside. It's not obvious the economy will dramatically improve in the next few years in the current policy environment (at current job growth rates, unemployment will not return to its pre-recession level until well after 2020), and the resulting mediocre performance will no doubt be attributed to misguided Romneynomics, thus sullying the reputation of right-wing economics and the Republican name brand (important to those of us who care about economic freedom, as this is the only party that even offers the possibility of improvements on this front).
  • Mitt Romney is likely to prove a rather poor standard bearer for the cause of limited government. He appears to be ideologically unmoored, lurching from positions such as indexing the minimum wage to inflation and mandating the purchase of health insurance while governor, to singing a very different tune in the presidential primaries. On the campaign trail in the general election, meanwhile, he has at times sounded like a Democrat. While some might call this welcome pragmatism, a less charitable interpretation is that the man simply hasn't given a great deal of thought to political philosophy, and thus lacks guiding principles. It's difficult to articulate the principles of limited government or spread its message if one doesn't even understand or subscribe to them in the first place.
  • Chances are, this election will likely not prove terribly important in a historical context.  And is the Supreme Court really that big of a deal over the next four years?
Here are two not fantastical scenarios worth considering:

Scenario #1: Mitt Romney is narrowly elected, arriving in Washington with nothing that can realistically be considered a mandate. None of President Obama's signature policy achievements are undone while Romney and the Republican House achieve little of note beyond a couple of minor free trade deals and some small reductions in federal spending. An attempt at tax reform fails amidst opposition from Senate Democrats who label the legislation a giveaway to the rich. Questions regarding Obama's birth certificate and the influence of his Kenyan father are replaced with investigations into the impact of  Mormon theology on Romney's governance style, with the inquisition led by Andrew Sullivan.

Absent any notable changes in the policy environment the economy continues to muddle along, which Paul Krugman and other leftists blame on Republican "austerity." Republicans lose ground in the 2014 elections, and -- derided as Bush the Third -- Romney is soundly defeated in 2016. A two-term Democratic president names replacements for Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsberg, all of whom are now well into their 80s. The replacements both believe in a "Living Constitution" with few if any checks on government power. 

Scenario #2: President Obama returns to the White House following an incredibly close election victory in which he fails to garner over 50 percent of the popular vote. Frustrated by a Republican House and a Senate that is only narrowly Democratic with 12 members up for re-election in 2014 from red states, Obama neither pursues nor passes any significant legislation. He instead contents himself with an "apple in every lunchbox" initiative aimed at combating childhood obesity. Obama's casting of blame for the mediocre economy on Bush is increasingly viewed as tired and unsupportable.

Republicans maintain the House and capture a majority of the Senate in the 2014 elections. Obama's economic legacy hangs like a millstone around the neck over the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, paving the way for the election of a Republican more committed to the cause of limited government than Mitt Romney. Indeed, there is no shortage of Republican possibilities: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, John Kasich of Ohio (don't laugh, he's actually rather popular) and Susana Martinez of New Mexico among others. Occupants of the GOP clown car that polluted the 2012 primary field such as Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain are mercifully put out to pasture. The Democratic bench, meanwhile features the likes of a 73-year-old Joe Biden, 69-year-old Hillary Clinton, and, er, Martin O'Malley.

To summarize, it is a distinct possibility that Mitt Romney's election could prove a Pyrrhic victory -- a tactical win but strategic loss that ultimately moves the country towards expanded government and a further retreat for freedom. Remember, the ultimate goal is limited government, not electing anyone with an "R" next to their name. While Romney could prove a capable or even outstanding president, it is perhaps equally possible -- even probable -- the opposite will be true. Food for thought as election night draws near.

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