The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle is feeling pretty cynical about the presidential campaign right now:
The candidates do not have a big program, because there is no money to pay for big programs. Whoever spends the next four years is going to have to do some unpleasant things to taxes and spending. No one wants to hear about those things, and they certainly don’t want to tell us about them. And so we have piddling personal attacks, half-hearted promises, and vapid reaffirmations that America is so great because it’s exceptional, and exceptional because it’s America.
It’s hard to disagree.
We’re told ceaselessly that the “stakes are high” in this election. They are. But the freedom of movement the next president will enjoy is probably as low as it’s been in a century.
Taxes. The recurring drama of the campaign is about how the Romney administration would pay for its rate reductions. This is probably a red herring. There is a vanishingly small chance that the Romney tax plan as it stands now will become law. As Reihan Salam concedes: “My guess is that if Mitt Romney is elected president, the eventual tax code overhaul will look quite different from his campaign proposal, particularly if Democrats retain a majority in the U.S. Senate.” If David Frum is right, Romney’s plan would shift tax burden from the super-rich to the merely rich.
Conclusion: Whether it’s Obama or Romney, there’s a good chance that high-earning individuals are going to see their taxes go up. And on corporations, taxes will go down, with a reelected Obama promising to privilege the manufacturing sector.
Job creation. Mitt Romney boasts that he’ll create 12 million jobs in his first term. That’s great. But the same is likely to happen under Obama. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler writes:
Moody’s Analytics, in an August forecast, predicts 12 million jobs will be created by 2016, no matter who is president. And Macroeconomic Advisors in April also predicted a gain of 12.3 million jobs. In other words, this is a fairly safe bet by Romney, even if he has a somewhat fuzzy plan for action. We have often noted that presidents are often at the mercy — or are the beneficiary — of broad economic trends, and Romney’s pledge appears to be an effort to take advantage of that.
Deficits. After skyrocketing at the height of the financial crisis, the annual deficit has begun to diminish. If GDP growth ticks upward next year, it will shrink somewhat more. I would argue the likelihood is high that if Romney is president, Republicans are going to talk a lot less about short-term budget deficits than they are right now. Just look at the panic over the “fiscal cliff,” whose spending cuts and tax hikes would by definition reduce the deficit. No one in Washington really wants this to happen. And those deep cuts to discretionary spending that Romney is proposing? Not gonna happen. Remember: Romney loves teachers, Pell Grants, and other education spending as much as Obama. And he won’t cut food stamps.
Long-term debt. The out-years are all about containing the growth of Medicare. Both parties agree this needs to be done. The question of how it gets done — by the CMS bureaucracy or by competition between private insurance companies — is where ideology supposedly comes into play. Yet as our own Noah Millman has noted, there is actually less conflict here than meets the eye:
Ryan’s plan approaches the question in a very similar way to the ACA. It imposes a budget on traditional Medicare (which is retained as an option for seniors), which would force HHS to find ways to reduce costs if they did not drop naturally on their own. The most plausible mechanisms for such are the kinds of things already included in the ACA. The value of a voucher would also be held down, so the other possibility is that private insurers would find ways to reduce costs that the government would not find. I’m inclined to favor competition for precisely that reason, but the fact remains that the kinds of things private insurers would have to do are essentially the same kinds of things the government would be doing: reducing reimbursements and/or changing the coverage mix.
Drones and “red lines.” In the third presidential debate, Romney substantially agreed with President Obama far more often than he disagreed. Whether it was the particulars of America’s involvement in Syria or sanctions on Iran or economic development aid to Egypt, there was little daylight between the candidates. On the question of drone strikes, for example, he said: “I believe we should use any and all means necessary. I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that policy.” If you’re desperate to find a stark difference, I suppose there’s the issue of “red lines” on nuclear-power-aspiring Iran. Romney wants the threshold for intervention set at “nuclear capability.” The Obama administration is more tight-lipped. It’s possible that a President Romney would have a quicker trigger on Iran, but I tend to doubt it. The idea that Obama is some kind of dove is a risible canard.
Obamacare. Repealing and starting healthcare reform from scratch would be an uphill climb. The prospect of avoiding a filibuster and repealing the law through the budget reconciliation process will be tantalizing. But if Democrats retain control of the Senate, even a simple majority vote becomes hard to imagine. I can easily see Romney pushing to get rid of the HHS mandate and the Independent Payment Advisory Board. But my guess is that the Medicare premium-support overhaul would be a bigger priority for Romney and Ryan. This is an unquantifiable hunch, but accomplishing both things strikes me as highly unlikely.
Long story short: No matter who wins, the era of government-shrink will continue. A Romney administration would tilt slightly more in the direction of the overclass than a second Obama term would. But basically we’ll be getting the same song — just with more cowbell.