RomneyWorld and the Senate: How Much Damage Can a President Do in a Divided Government?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column today, I began a multi-part series of columns in which I will discuss the likely policies that would be implemented during a possible Romney presidency. Before proceeding to the substance of that task, however, today's column laid the groundwork by discussing two threshold issues: whether Romney can win (that is, whether it is even worth our time wondering about what he would do as President), and what broad principles would inform his approach to setting his policy agenda.

On the first point, I emphasize just how weak and problematic Romney is as a candidate. Given everything that is going in Romney's favor -- led, first and foremost, by the still-weak economy -- it is simply shocking that the early polls show a statistical dead heat. Even an ultimately close election should, at this stage, look bleak for any incumbent presiding over this economy. That Obama's political team is so frequently inept should only strengthen Romney's position. Yet, because of Romney's complete emptiness as a candidate (I refer to his strategy of trying to turn his lack of a moral core into his core electoral asset: "Nominate me! No one believes what I say, anyway!"), he is very likely to lose this thing for the Republicans.

Like the party's failure to take the Senate in 2010, because of its insistence on allowing incredibly vulnerable candidates like Harry Reid in Nevada and Chris Coons in Delaware to win against complete embarrassments, an inviting opportunity to knock off Obama could easily be squandered. Obviously, this is all to the nation's benefit (and the world's), notwithstanding my frequent criticism of Obama over the last three years.

On the second point, Romney's likely ideological agenda, I argue in my column that the notion that he would govern as a moderate conservative simply makes no sense. If anything, he will be given less room to deviate -- even a tiny bit -- from the conservative movement's ideological agenda than would a true conservative, precisely because of his well-known lack of a guiding set of principles (other than personal political ambition).

In that part of the column, I started to run out of synonyms for "opportunistic" and "unprincipled," but I did manage not to use any form of the word "mendacious" (no matter how apt it would have been). Going forward,therefore, my columns will essentially be based on the assumption that President Romney will be an obedient servant of his party's radicalized arch-conservative base. He calls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker a "hero," and he completely embraces Rep. Paul Ryan's insane budget plans. He will not be able to move away from those positions as President.

Toward the end of the column, I entertain the question of how Congress fits into the story. I first make the obvious claim that the House will not flip back to the Democrats on a night that Romney wins the White House. But what about the Senate? For my future columns, I will assume that the Senate is filibuster-proof, both because I think that such an outcome is likely in a scenario where we end up with a President Romney, and because that is the outcome under which we would have the most interesting -- that is, terrifying -- set of policy possibilities.

If the Democrats hold the Senate, however, the story must obviously change. In my first draft of the column, I wrote that a Senate with a Democratic majority would mean that "virtually nothing" would happen under President Romney. During editing, I deleted that claim and instead wrote: “No major legislation would pass, but the full force of the Executive Branch would be in the hands of a President who is beholden to the most extreme elements of his party.” Here, I will add two broad comments.

First, one must acknowledge that the Democrats are notoriously weak-kneed, especially in the face of a Republican President. While there have been important moments of unity -- most notably, the successful resistance to George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security, even though the Democrats were in the minority in both houses at the time -- it is easy to picture a handful of self-styled moderate Democrats in the Senate refusing to join in filibusters. Even with Ben Nelson retiring, and Evan Bayh all but forgotten, there is a never-ending supply of Democratic Senators who could somehow convince themselves to join the Republicans on key issues. At least on budgetary issues, my leading candidates are Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, who have already said and done silly things in the name of bipartisanship. Even if I am wrong, however, we would surely see some Senators taking the bait to become "statesmen" in the eyes of Very Serious People like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, and all of the pompous heirs to the David Broder school of punditry.

Second, even if I am still wrong, and 41 or more Senate Democrats successfully fight off major legislative changes (and, even less likely, block Alito/Scalia-style judicial appointments), the damage of a Romney presidency would be real and extreme. A recent NYT front page article noted that the Obama team has been honing its ability to bypass Congress to get things it wants accomplished. Executive Orders, agency action, and all the rest are currently being used to serve centrist (or, at most, center-left) goals, having been adapted from the model of extreme executive authority set in motion during the Bush/Cheney years -- which were, of course, amped-up versions of the expansions of executive power under Clinton, which were themselves audacious extensions of the Reagan/Bush effort to roll back the restrictions of the post-Watergate years. Oy.

All of this is why, in the midst of my criticism of Obama throughout 2011, I conceded that there was no way that any liberal (or, I would now add, anyone who disagrees with any aspect of the Koch brothers' agenda) could fail to come around on Obama in 2012. The "under the radar stuff" is more important than ever. As we saw under Bush II, staff decisions were being made on religious grounds. Under Obama, the NLRB failed to fly under the radar at one point, but it has still insisted on enforcing labor laws, rather than gutting or ignoring them.

Therefore, my initial intuition that "virtually nothing" would happen under continued divided government is obviously wrong. RomneyWorld would be even scarier if the Democrats had no remaining sources of political power, but even a strong Senate opposition would not be enough to prevent an onslaught. I am very disappointed by Obama's Presidency (although he has gotten much better since last summer's debt ceiling debacle.) But the alternative -- even under Mitt the Mock Moderate -- is horrifying.