COLUMBUS, Ohio—There’s a moment in the middle of Mitt Romney’s “closing argument” when he admits that his fellow Republicans have been—for want of a better word—jerks. He got there 15 minutes into his final Ohio speech, after he and his wife, Ann, exited an airplane that had been slowly and dramatically parked in front of the crowd to the ear-splitting sounds of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
“If the president were to be re-elected,” said Romney, “he still wouldn’t be able to work with the people in Congress, of course, because he’s ignored them. He’s attacked them. He’s blamed them. The debt ceiling will come up again. And then there’ll be a threat of shutdown or default. And if that happens, the economy will become frozen. You’ll have a harder time finding jobs. The president was right when he said he can’t change Washington from the inside, only from the outside. Let’s give him that chance!”
Those words got floor-stomping cheers from the crowd of 10,000 or so Republicans, which included two members of the aforementioned Congress. Those guys had been there, voting in unison against the February 2009 stimulus package. Rep. Eric Cantor, now the House majority leader, had told Republicans not to vote for the bill, to deny it any “bipartisan” cover when Barack Obama’s approval was at his apex. When the GOP obliged, Cantor’s office released a video called “The House Republicans Are Back!” Calculations of all the alleged stimulus waste appeared onscreen as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler screamed, “I’m baaaaaack! I’m back in the saddle again!”
At this late date it feels strange to argue that the Republican Party, in the Obama era, has been unusually obstructionist. Senate Republicans have filibustered bills and judges at a steadier pace than any previous Congress. The current class of House Republicans bent the debt ceiling vote into a showdown over spending cuts. After the pathetic compromise that ended that fight—the sequester, an automatic $1.4 billion of spending cuts that will probably get punted—Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating and moaned that “the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.”
Hearing Mitt Romney say he’ll fix this problem is like watching Cleavon Little hold himself “hostage” in Blazing Saddles. But he’s trying to collect on a bet that Republicans placed years ago. Since January 2009, they’ve denied Democrats cover on their own bills, expecting voters to blame the president when Washington failed. If it doesn’t work today, it will go down as one of the weakest long games in political history.
Here’s the first problem. Voters don’t actually hold President Obama responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in their capital. According to Gallup, the president enters Election Day with a 52 percent approval rating—not that unusual, after months of campaigning and mudslinging. More compelling are the polls that have shown, consistently, that voters bear residual ill will against the last Republican president. In mid-September, when CNN asked voters whether they blame Barack Obama or George W. Bush for their economic problems, 38 percent said Obama and 54 percent said Bush. This was four full years after Lehman Bros.
But Republicans have never taken that seriously. On Fox News or talk radio, the very mention of Bush starts the conservative host laughing at the pathetic idea of “blaming Bush for everything.” In Columbus, Romney hit the nerve like this: “On January 20, I won’t just take office. I’ll take responsibility.” This shifts the “blame Republicans” burden from the voters, who believe it, to the president, who sounds pathetic when he says it. “A lot of people who blame Congress are probably the people who get their information from the evening news, which slants the story against Congress,” said Lisa Pranckh, a Dublin, Ohio, mom at the Columbus rally.
The “blame Obama” case should be easy to make. In September, Bob Woodward published a tick-tock of the debt ceiling fight. It was, by far, the most jaded and damning portrait of the president published by a journalist with access. (This excludes Ed Klein and his secondhand anonymous sources.) The Romney campaign immediately lifted one anecdote from the book for a TV ad, telling voters that the hapless Obama couldn’t even get Democrats to listen to him during the stimulus fight. In October, after Romney blamed Obama for the sequester—which was purely a product of the debt deal, and which Paul Ryan supported—Woodward spoke up, confirming that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew had endorsed the idea, as a trigger for a better deal.
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.