There are plenty of things not to like about this year’s presidential campaign, including how nasty and negative a mud fight it’s become, with both sides engaging in shameless distortion.
But here’s the worst thing about this presidential campaign: No matter what happens on Election Day, there’s little hope of a good outcome.
For most of the past four years, Washington, D.C., has been mired in political gridlock, deadlocked between Republicans who want to slash government and keep taxes low and Democrats who are willing to trim government a bit but also want to raise taxes on the affluent.
That deadlock has sent us careening toward one fiscal cliff after another. It has made it virtually impossible for Congress to do anything more ambitious than writing short-term spending bills that merely kick the can down the road.
One purpose of elections is to break that kind of deadlock and send politicians a message about what direction voters want them to go. That’s what happened in 2008, when President Barack Obama won a mandate to pursue his vision of an activist government – and again in 2010, when voters decided that Obama had gone too far and handed the House of Representatives to Republicans.
But this year? It’s unlikely voters will deliver a clear message.
The presidential polls have been balanced around the 50 percent mark for months. Strategists in both parties say the outcome is likely to be a squeaker. The morning after Election Day, the winner, whoever he is, will declare that voters have given him a ringing mandate to do whatever he promised – but it won’t be true. Polls show that on most of the major issues the candidates are arguing about – tax rates, the size of government, the repeal of Obama’s health care plan – the public is divided.
Congress is likely to remain deadlocked as well. The most recent forecast by Charlie Cook, the dean of congressional election soothsayers, suggests that the Senate will end up around 50-50, too close for either party to control with ease. In the House of Representatives, Cook projects that Democrats could gain as many as eight seats, but that’s far short of the 25 they need to take control.
In the absence of a clear-cut victory for either side, we face two possible scenarios.
In one outcome, Obama narrowly wins re-election and spends at least two years wrestling with truculent conservatives in the House, who will be determined to stand in his way as never before.
In the other, Romney narrowly wins election and spends at least two years wrestling with truculent conservatives in the House, who will interpret his election as a popular mandate for a “tea party” program whether it is or not. He could have a Democratic Senate to wrestle with as well.
The almost inevitable result? More gridlock.
Could anything change these doleful projections?
If either party wins a landslide and a genuine mandate, sure. Or if Obama emerges from the campaign with a new set of Clintonesque negotiating skills. Or if the militants of the tea party are chastened by a narrow Republican presidential win and a loss in the Senate. But none of those things seems likely – especially a chastened tea party.
Polls show that most voters don’t want a rigidly ideological government of either left or right; they want practical problem-solving somewhere in the center. But the rules of American politics are stacked against centrists and compromisers these days.