If you ask Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, or merely wander in front of a television when they are speaking, they will confidently tell you the same thing: This election poses a fundamental choice to America. And they are right. America is struggling to pull out of its deepest economic crisis in 80 years. The past four years have unleashed a raw, bitter war over economic class, our social obligation to the poor and sick, and the basic sustainability of the modern state that has existed since Franklin Roosevelt. Various events have conspired to compress the decisive battles of the war into a brief period at the beginning of the next year, in what will likely be an atmosphere of economic crisis. “2013,” says Paul Ryan, correctly, “is the magic year that determines how all this gets resolved.”
But when you press the candidates to explain just how it is they could escape the muck that has ensnared Obama the past two years, they descend into mushy platitudes. Romney promises “leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat”—at most a mild Republican retreat from Obama’s aggressive reforms, or perhaps even a reprise of Romney’s often liberal tenure in Massachusetts. Obama, for his part, has offered up an even less plausible scenario, which is that, even though Republicans in Congress responded to his 2008 victory by becoming even more radical than they were under George W. Bush, winning a second election will beat the crazy out of them and usher in a new era of legislative compromise and good feelings.
It seems natural to conclude from all this vapid, buoyant patter that neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that, whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four. President Obama would still likely face a Republican House, and President Romney a Senate in which Democrats can mount a filibuster. Yet all the signs suggest both candidates do have strategies in mind to prod the creaky machinery of Washington to life and effect the dramatic change they vaguely but ardently promise. In fact, shortly after the next Inaugural Ball—perhaps very, very shortly after—the great stalemate between socialism and social Darwinism will break open and likely turn decisively in one direction or the other.
For different reasons, the candidates cannot openly describe these plans to the voters. But the clues are everywhere.
Let’s first imagine that, on January 20, Romney takes the oath of office. Of the many secret post-victory plans floating around in the inner circles of the campaigns, the least secret is Romney’s intention to implement Paul Ryan’s budget. The Ryan budget has come to be almost synonymous with the Republican Party agenda, and Romney has embraced it with only slight variations. It would repeal Obamacare, cut income-tax rates, turn Medicare for people under 55 years old into subsidized private insurance, increase defense spending, and cut domestic spending, with especially large cuts for Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs targeted to the very poor.
Few voters understand just how rapidly Romney could achieve this, rewriting the American social compact in one swift stroke. Ryan’s plan has never attracted Democratic support, but it is not designed for bipartisanship. Ryan deliberately built it to circumvent a Senate filibuster, stocking the plan with budget legislation that is allowed, under Senate “budget reconciliation” procedures, to pass with a simple majority. Republicans have been planning the mechanics of the vote for many months, and Republican insiders expect Romney to use reconciliation to pass the bill. Republicans would still need to control 50 votes in the Senate (Ryan, as vice-president, would cast the tiebreaking vote), but if Romney wins the presidency, he’ll likely precipitate a partywide tail wind that would extend to the GOP’s Senate slate.
One might suppose that at least a handful of Republicans might blanch at the prospect of reshaping the entire face of government unilaterally. But Ryan’s careful organizing of the party agenda has all taken place with this vote as the end point, and with the clear goal of sidestepping any such objection. When Republicans won control of Congress during the 2010 elections, Ryan successfully lobbied the party to take a vote on his budget plan the following April. The plan stood no chance of passage (given Obama’s certain veto) and exposed dozens of vulnerable House members to withering attacks over its unpopular provisions. So why hold a vote carrying huge potential risk and no chance of immediate success? So Ryan could get the party on record supporting his plan, depriving quiet dissidents of any future excuse to defect should the real vote come in 2013.