Would a Democratic Senate Stop President Romney?

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

I have a feature story gaming out how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would leverage their power to win the political economy war. My analysis of Romney (which is the shorter and much-less-detailed portion of the story) is that he would pass a modified version of the Ryan plan, using the vast gaps in his tax and spending proposals to postpone the most politically damaging elements of the plan, which would help him attract both token Democratic support and provide immediate stimulus. I’ve seen a few comments wondering whether Romney could really do this given the probability that Democrats will control the Senate. Let me explain my thinking here in a little more detail.

When I first worked out the argument in the piece, Republican Senate control appeared considerably more likely than a Romney win. That has changed. My premise in the article is that a Romney win would require the sort of national tailwind likely to get Republicans up to 50 Senate votes. I’d back off that prediction now, though I still think Romney slightly trails in the electoral college and needs a little bigger party-wide boost.

The bigger question here is whether or not a Senate with 51 or 52 Democrats would force Romney to substantially alter his plans. I’d argue it wouldn’t. I actually argued as much in a post Friday, which is sort of an addendum to the argument in my piece. Since small-population states are far more likely to vote Republican, the Senate massively overrrepresents red states. Republicans have, in a sense, spent down their natural advantage by demanding strict party discipline rather than giving individual candidates the freedom to carve out centrist identities. Democrats have taken the opposite strategy, generally sacrificing party discipline in order to win as many seats as they can.

That’s the reason Democrats have a strong chance to win a majority, but it’s also the reason they’re unlikely to hold that majority together as a rock-solid wall of opposition. In 2001, red-state Democratic Senators were desperate to tout their bipartisan credentials and wound up supporting the Bush tax cuts in return for token concessions. In 2013, you’ll have a wave of Democratic senators from red (often increasingly red) states like Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and North Carolina facing reelection the next year. None of them is going to want the optics of standing with their party in a high-profile showdown, especially where the president could blame them for jeopardizing the recovery and blocking tax cuts for the middle class. And remember, to block Romney, Democrats would need all — or perhaps all but one or two — to oppose him.

Now, I happen to think that the smart political move for Senate Democrats would be to ape the McConnell strategy, blocking Romney at every turn, which would make his promise to work with both parties a failure, and at the same time, block stimulus spending that would speed up the recovery. (This is a pure, cold political analysis.) Their best shot to survive the midterm election is an unpopular Romney burdened by a sluggish recovery. But the Senate Democratic caucus tends not to think in McConnell-esque terms. Senate Democrats in red states put their chips on positioning themselves in the center. They will perceive obstructionism as risking their political career and will likely be racing to cut a deal, even an unconscionable one.