In Woodward’s telling, as well as Romney’s, it doesn’t matter that Republicans were intransigent. What matters is that Obama did not win them over. Weak presidents happen. John F. Kennedy didn’t know how to get big bills through Congress. Neither—more importantly, for Republican purposes—did Jimmy Carter. Of course the problems in Washington are Obama’s fault. If voters agree with that analysis, Republicans can undo it.
What if they don’t? Ask that question and you see how dangerous the “no bipartisan cover” bet was. Republicans expected to be running against a president whose signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, would be struck down by the Supreme Court. They expected that from the day they won their first lower court case to the moment they actually got to Page 6 of the court’s decision. Had it happened, the strategy of denying bipartisan cover to Obama—and some buy-ins that Republicans might have liked—would have worked. But as soon as the court upheld the law, voters stopped thinking of it as unconstitutional.
Also part of this bet: Control of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Republicans thought they had a bank-shot chance of winning control of the chamber. They did spectacularly well, but lousy candidates in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado (though I always feel bad about lumping Colorado’s Ken Buck together with Christine O’Donnell) kept them at 47 seats. This year, they were dead-bang certain that they’d take the Senate. If the polls are right, they won’t. That’s why Romney’s close-out speech refers to “executive orders” that will undo Obamacare, not to anything that can pass the Senate.
Why are they losing the Senate races? Consult the map. In Maine, the retirement of liberal Republican Olympia Snowe has opened the door for Angus King, a liberal independent who has run against the very idea of the modern, filibustery Senate. In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren is now favored (narrowly) to beat Sen. Scott Brown because she’s pulling around 80 percent of Barack Obama’s voters. Republicans are canceling this out with expected wins in North Dakota and Nebraska, which would finally, after years of ticket-splitting, have all-GOP Senate delegations. They might win Montana; Democrats might hold off Tommy Thompson and win in Wisconsin. All of these poll numbers and possible outcomes can be explained by partisanship.
The voters in all of those states are acting with impeccable logic. So were the voters who chose the most conservative candidates in their primaries. They want, at the federal level, representatives who’ll push with maximum force when they have power and resist with maximum force when they don’t. It’s tough to convince them that the failure of Washington is Barack Obama’s fault. Republicans did want him to fail. Their voters wanted him to fail, too.
On the long, cold walk out of the Romney rally, I trudged next to an older couple wearing garb they bought at 2009 Tea Party rallies. Cathy Bender, a child-care specialist, wore a shirt that read, “I Hate It When I Wake Up and Barack Obama is Still President.” I asked her about Romney’s version of the gridlock story. When Republicans won the House in 2010, setting up two years of brinkmanship, how should Obama have responded?
“He should have stepped down,” she said.