Ezra Klein on Divided Government

Ezra Klein argues that right-of-center columnists like David Brooks and David Frum who favor the election of Mitt Romney alongside the election of a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate are missing something important:

It’s a strange kind of endorsement that only works as long as the presidential candidate being endorsed isn’t able to govern alongside members of his own party. More to the point, it’s a self-nullifying kind of endorsement.

If you think Romney would govern successfully alongside a Democratic Senate, then you probably think his approval ratings will be high going into the midterms, or at least going into his second term. If that happens, then voters will reward his success by electing more members of his party to Congress (and recall that Romney, in Massachusetts, was energetic if ineffectual in campaigns to elect more Republicans to the legislature). Given the Senate map in 2014, that will mean full Republican control of Congress. So if the endorsements are correct, then the conditions they assume will quickly vanish. 

There is, however, another way of looking at the landscape. If the Democrats retain a majority in the U.S. Senate this coming year, Democrats will have considerable leverage in crafting a tax reform settlement that will be difficult to undo. That is, the next Congress will be fairly consequential in setting the course of governance for many years to come. This is, in my view and the view of many other conservatives, a good reason to root for a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Yet to those who think that revenue increases should be part of a broader effort to reduce long-run deficits, it is easy to see why the scenario favored by Brooks and Frum makes sense: the goalposts will have shifted after two years, thus constraining conservative ambitions, for better or worse.  

Would it make sense for a progressive partisan to argue that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was futile, and that the center-left would have been much better off had Democrats not secured a majority of the U.S. Senate for 2009? After all, opposition to ACA helped fuel Republican successes in the midterm congressional elections. I don’t find this view very plausible, as ACA will prove very difficult to undo, as conservatives are realizing to their chagrin, and the passage of ACA has meaningfully shifted the goalposts of health policy. Conservatives are now under greater pressure to offer an alternative health-system reform agenda that offers coverage expansion that would at the very least be near-universal. Indeed, this shifting of the goalposts is one reason why many on the left saw President Obama’s coverage expansion as crucially important, despite the political backlash it entailed. 

All of this is to say that the conditions Brooks and Frum assume will not quickly vanish if Republicans retake the U.S. Senate in 2014, as, for example, implementation a new tax code and indeed the ACA will be well underway. 

I will say that Ezra’s argument applies with greater force to David Frum, who it seems would oppose Romney if he believed that Romney would govern alongside a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. But to the extent Brooks and Frum are making an argument to marginal voters — that a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate would constrain conservative ambitions during a critical moment that will have durable consequences — I think it makes perfect sense. In a similar vein, I think that one could persuasively argue that had Barack Obama been forced to govern alongside a Republican Congress in early 2009, the history of his presidency would look markedly different — and far more favorable to conservatives in policy terms if not in political terms. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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