Lessons of 2012
The reelection of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States provides no resolution to the pressing political deadlock in the nation's capital. Obama returns to the White House for another term, while the House of Representatives remains in Republican hands and the Senate is retained by the Democrats. In a way, nothing has changed from the stalemate which existed on November 5th. Unlike other countries, there is no mechanism to force any sort of French-style "cohabitation" between rival parties, nor provision for creating a grand national coalition. Moreover, given the stark divides within the American electorate—across geographic, ethnic and class lines—political polarization is not set to abate anytime soon.
So what observations can we draw from campaign 2012?
The first is to reinforce a particular piece of wisdom noted by Aaron Burr more than two centuries ago: "Things written remain." The modern aphorism is this: No one ever advanced his or her career by writing op-eds. Mitt Romney's famous essay printed in the New York Times four years ago, opposing the bailout of the U.S. auto industry and calling for Detroit to go into bankruptcy, came back to haunt him with a vengeance given his losses in Michigan and Ohio. Future candidates have taken notice, just as aspiring Supreme Court justices have already known: do not commit any controversial policy opinion to print. We can expect that in the future, candidates—and those who would serve them in high offices—will have as little of a paper trail as possible and offer no thought that is not either bland and vague or poll-tested and approved.
The second is that, given the reality of deadlock, and the high unlikelihood of Congress passing new, substantial pieces of legislation, the president will come to rely more and more on executive orders to reinterpret existing authorities and laws to give him the power to act. (A key exception is that with the Senate remaining under Democratic control, the president should be able to get new appointees confirmed, which will be important, given the likelihood that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and perhaps Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will retire from office.) Despite running against the aggrandizement of the executive branch in the 2008 campaign, both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have learned to live with the expansion of presidential authority, espeically when it comes to using armed force. Whether or not deadlock at the federal level has the impact of transferring more initiative to state governments to move forward with either conservative or progressive experiments (on questions of immigration, health care, social policy or climate change) remains to be seen, but one cannot rule out a resurgence in the importance of state governments if the federal government remains paralyzed.
The third is that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could not yet escape the legacy of the George W. Bush administration. Despite billboards that proclaimed "Miss Me Yet?" displaying the visage of the former president, polling data indicates that many voters still associate the current problems faced by the country with the policies of the past administration, even if acknowledging the failings of the current team to decisively reverse the negative trends. Romney had a choice to run as a Republican with no direct responsibility for what the Bush team had wrought, and to disassociate himself from the policies of the past administration. But his decision to embrace former administration officials, particularly those responsible for national security and for the choices made in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowed the Obama campaign to paint him—as they successfully did with John McCain in 2008—with the brush that the Republican candidate would be the "third term of George W. Bush."
The question now is whether Republicans, in analyzing the defeats of 2008 and 2012, as well as their inability to retake the Senate in 2010 and again this year, will go through a period of introspection in the same way that Democrats did when faced with a string of defeats during the 1980s. In other words, is a "Republican Leadership Council" on the horizon, which would see the reemergence of a more moderate Republican faction, both in terms of domestic policy and foreign-policy realism abroad? The conversation within the Republican party about its future starts today. And given the lack of a clear "heir apparent" for the Democrats, the 2016 race may resemble the 2008 one: both parties searching for a candidate and a platform to present to the American people.