Speaking of trench warfare, Ramesh Ponnuru, world’s smartest movement conservative, explicitly lays out the argument from chutzpah – that you shouldn’t vote Obama because if he’s reelected the Republicans will get even crazier:
The Republicans aren’t going to change. Judging from the interview, neither will the president. He said that after the election he would tell Republicans “you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy.” He would reiterate that he has always been open to compromise. And he would “look at how we can work around Congress,” if needed.
In other words, after winning he will lecture Republicans about how their positions are insincere and adopted purely for political reasons; he will insist that his existing positions are already a compromise with them; and he will try to govern unilaterally. These tactics seem unlikely to produce the desired results. Obama has, after all, adopted all of them, and they haven’t worked.
If the public renders a split verdict — returning Obama to the presidency and giving Republicans more power in Congress — both parties will insist that it’s the other that needs to “listen to the American people.” The choice before those people is looking more and more like one between Romney and a unified Republican government, or Obama and four more years that look a lot like the last two.
The Obama campaign badly needs an answer to this argument. As I’ve been arguing for some time, whining that the other team isn’t playing fair is just hanging a big “loser” sign around your own neck. There’s no ref. You’ve just got to play the game, however the game is played, and win.
So how is Obama going to actually make progress in his second term, assuming Ponnuru is right that Republicans will view any result as a mandate for continued opposition to everything the Administration does? And how is he to convince the electorate that he will actually be able to make that progress?
One answer is to publicize precisely this argument, and make it a constant talking point in down-ticket races. The evidence is overwhelming that the country hates Congress, and hates it specifically because of its dysfunction. If the GOP is effectively running on perpetuating that dysfunction, I’d think you could cut a pretty good ad about that.
How effective that ad will be is a question, though. Congressional races, and even Senate races, tend to be locally-driven affairs, and the same people who say they hate Congress seem not to hate their own congresscritters much, if at all. Even if the President has coattails, they’re unlikely to be very long ones.
And while it’s very easy to find evidence of GOP obstruction – the frivolous filibustering of appointments is the most egregious example out there – it’s harder to tie that obstruction to particular plans that are both intended to and believed by the public to be efficacious responses to high unemployment. The debt ceiling debacle, for example, actively damaged the United States in utterly gratuitous ways, in the service of terrible policy goals. There is no good defense for what the Republicans did. But pointing that out means arguing that we had to raise the debt ceiling. And since the public identifies rapidly rising debt with our poor economic position (which it is, if you look at the long term), this isn’t a politically effective point for Obama to make.
The same thing is true about the looming sequestration. The Obama Administration, after the election, can play that game of chicken to win. After all, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the imposition of massive domestic spending cuts would be bad for the economy – but it would move the policy landscape in the Administration’s direction. We’d be debating which tax hikes to rescind and which spending to restore. That’s a debate the President undoubtedly wants to have, in public. But he can’t, in advance of the election, argue that he’s going to play chicken and call the GOP’s bluff. That would be terrible politics – precisely because it would risk damaging the economy in the short term.
The one thing I know Obama should stop doing is promising that he’ll “change the tone” and “keep his door open” and that sort of thing. Over-promising has gotten Obama into trouble before, and promises that the GOP will “come around” after the election are bound to sound absurd to anyone who’s been paying any attention – whatever you think about the justifications for that obstruction. And frankly, that message is kind of obviously passive-aggressive, and hence off-putting. It’s a way of saying, “don’t blame me – blame them” which is a loser argument. I don’t care whether Obama is a nice guy. I think a lot of people would like him to be an a-hole – so long as he’s our a-hole.
Another answer is to run for a mandate, even if a modest one – which is what I’ve argued for in my last post. Mitt Romney has said almost nothing about how he will tackle the economic problems that he says justify turning President Obama out of office, and what little he has said is either too small-bore, is self-contradictory, or is actively counter-productive. If Obama has a list of things he wishes he could do and that he thinks would revive the economy, he can list them. And demand a vote on them. Every day.
Ultimately, I suspect the best answer to the argument from chutzpah is the simplest. Say what you’re going to do. Say you’re going to do it. And when somebody asks, “but how are you going to get it done,” turn the question around, and say: go ask the other guys whether they’re going to vote against it, and why.
But of course, to do that you need a positive – and politically palatable – agenda to propose. We already know the Republicans don’t have one. We’ve got a couple of more days to see if the Democrats do.