Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator and Harvard University professor, observed that academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.
This year, U.S. politics feel that way, too. The issues don’t seem as seminal as those facing the nation during the Cold War or the civil rights movement; the partisanship is worse.
Nonetheless, this presidential election has important policy implications.
If either party wins the White House and control of both houses of Congress, there will be an opportunity to deal immediately with fiscal and health care issues through a congressional process known as reconciliation that allows an expedited procedure with a simple majority in both chambers. That’s how the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and President Obama’s health care measure were enacted.
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The more probable congressional outcome is something resembling the status quo: a House with 235 Republicans and 200 Democrats and a Senate with 52 Democrats and 48 Republicans. That configuration will require compromise. Whoever is president, however, will still have important leverage for his agenda and allied interest groups in shaping any compromises.
The fiscal cliff: The next president will have to deal with a possible fiscal crisis almost immediately. He will have to contend with a mix of calls for stimulus to bolster a sluggish economy and the need for long-term debt reduction through spending cuts and tax increases. All as he grapples with an extension of the U.S. debt ceiling early next year.
With the prospect of a divided Congress, Obama wouldn’t make much headway in advocating more spending on green jobs or major infrastructure projects. Nor would Mitt Romney be able to sell his huge tax cuts, which few serious analysts believe come close to adding up.
Nevertheless, the White House would matter. Advocates of lower taxes, especially for the wealthy, and of more robust spending on defense would fare considerably better under a Romney presidency. Proponents of strengthening educational measures such as Pell grants for college students or health-research spending would do better under Obama.
Health care and financial regulation: Romney has vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial-regulatory legislation. Obama vows to retain them.
The new Congress is likely to alter both, either significantly so under a Republican president, or with just some tweaking under the incumbent.
On health care, if you’re a business that opposes the taxes in the Obama measure, you’re cheering for Romney. A new administration would gut some of those provisions. If you’re uninsured, and especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions, you’re in tough shape if Romney is president.
Interest groups have a lot at stake in how Dodd-Frank is revised. If Romney is elected, the big Wall Street banks that trade derivatives will celebrate as restrictions probably would be eased. An Obama win would be welcome news for financial-industry regulators, whose resources would be cut by Republicans, and for regional banks.
Supreme Court and the judiciary: The odds are in favor of a Supreme Court appointment or two over the next four years. Five of the six second-term presidents since World War II have named justices; four of the current justices are 74 or older.
With gay marriage, affirmative action, abortion and major economic issues on the docket in the years ahead, any nominee will endure a bruising battle for confirmation. Obama’s record makes clear that his picks would be left-of-center moderates. Romney, who has shown little interest in judicial appointments, probably would listen to the demands of the movement-conservative legal community.
Further, the next president probably will name more than two dozen appellate court judges and 100 federal district court judges. These will tilt the balance in some important jurisdictions.
National security: The foreign-policy debate last week failed to reveal many differences between the candidates because Romney, seeking to demonstrate his credentials to be commander in chief, largely agreed with the current administration’s positions on Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the use of drones to fight terrorists, Iranian sanctions and even Libya.
There’s every reason to expect that Obama’s second-term foreign policy would be a continuation of the past four years, though absent some of the heavy hitters such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and perhaps Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
There is great debate in Republican circles over the direction that a Romney national security team would take. Traditionalists or centrist Republicans point to the Romney of last week’s debate. The neoconservative wing led by the Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld unilateralists are dominant among Romney’s advisers and could effectively pressure a president-elect who is inexperienced in this field.
Particularly in the Middle East, a President Romney might be more aggressive, even confrontational.
Two imponderables make forecasts impossible. When it comes to some of the toughest issues, including Iran and Pakistan, there are no good answers. And future national-security crises are unpredictable. In 1960, during his campaign for president, John F. Kennedy talked about the dispute between Taiwan and China over two obscure islands, Quemoy and Matsu. As president, his foreign policy was defined by Cuba.
In 2000, candidate George W. Bush called for a more “humble” foreign policy; a year and a half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he unilaterally invaded Iraq.