If anyone does a year-end wrap-up of the worst ideas of 2012, losing the presidential election deserves to be high on the list.
A note of gloomy wishfulness has entered Republican thinking of late. Maybe a loss in November (if Mitt Romney wins the nomination) won’t be so bad, because a cleansing fire will rid the party of moderates once and for all. Or, from the opposite point of view (if Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich were somehow to get nominated), a devastating defeat will teach the party’s purists a lesson. In any event, a Republican Congress could foil President Barack Obama’s noxious initiatives in a second term.
All of this is hopefulness masquerading as hardheadedness. No shift in the balance of power within the Republican party, no congressional check on the president, no silver lining can possibly outweigh the setback the GOP will suffer if President Obama wins a second term.
Assuming it’s not struck down by the Supreme Court, Obamacare will be on the books until 2017, and probably forevermore. No matter how unpopular it is now, it will eventually become part of the permanent architecture of the welfare state, as unmovable as almost every other entitlement. It won’t be long before Republicans are couching their criticisms of the program in terms of “saving” it. The repeal movement will eventually feel as dated as opposition to the creation of Medicare.
If Republicans hold the House and at least a substantial minority in the Senate, the president’s ability to pass major new programs will be limited. But the debate over the Health and Human Services contraception mandate demonstrates the power and discretion attendant to controlling the executive branch. The administration came up with the rule mandating coverage with no exemption for religious institutions all on its own. What could congressional Republicans do to stop it? Nothing.
This is a theme. What could congressional Republicans do to stop the auto bailouts? Nothing. The Libya War? Nothing. The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing? Nothing. They objected to the administration’s dithering on the Keystone pipeline, so they included a requirement that President Obama make a decision in an unrelated piece of must-pass legislation. He escaped this clever trap — by rejecting the pipeline.
This is the tale of congressional frustration when Republicans have been united. There’s no guarantee that they will remain so if their numbers diminish next year and if their standing with the public remains low. A cataract of tax increases set for 2013 will give the president invaluable leverage in budget negotiations. As ever, he will have outsized influence in setting the agenda. With one speech, he can take income inequality from an animating issue in Zuccotti Park to an animating issue in the national debate.
He will presumably replace the liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be 80 in 2013, with another liberal who will serve for another 30 years. If Justice Anthony Kennedy or Justice Antonin Scalia steps aside (both were born in 1936), he gets the opportunity to shift the balance of the court for decades.
There is no presidential election that is not said to be the most important in our lifetime. It was even said in 1996, when Bill Clinton won a decisive but not particularly consequential victory over Bob Dole. But Clinton had been chastened by the Republican sweep in 1994, and in a period of peace and prosperity, the country could afford to debate the meaning of “is.” Now, we are truly at an inflection point, between the Barack Obama and Paul Ryan approaches to government, between consolidation of the past three years of historic government expansion and rollback.
The downbeat musings on the right are driven by the dreary primary season and the belief that the party’s nominee will be weak. But so is the president, who leads likely nominee Mitt Romney only narrowly even after Romney’s season of self-inflicted wounds. For Republicans, the general election is still winnable, and there is no substitute for victory.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate.