After all the speeches and pageantry, the maudlin videos, rote testimonials, and scripted attacks, the Republican and Democratic conventions boiled down to a single question: Will things improve if President Obama is granted a second term? The answer — explicit at the Republican convention, implicit during the Democratic convention — mostly seemed to be “no.”
At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, speaker after speaker castigated Mitt Romney. They invoked Bain layoffs, looming GOP cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and the inevitable denial of a woman’s right to a legal abortion that would occur if Republicans take control of the government. There were constant reminders about the intransigence of congressional Republicans, Obama’s earnest good faith in trying to overcome it, and the stark disparity this presents with earlier times.
What almost nobody did was try to make an explicit case that this would change. The exception was Bill Clinton. “[Obama] has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity,” he argued on Wednesday night. “And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.”
But most Democrats preferred to talk about the “choice” in November, rather than what would come afterward. Obama himself has rather meekly suggested that Republicans would suddenly gain enlightenment and their “fever would break” if he’s reelected. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, doesn’t do much to expand on that. “We’ll see how the politics of obstructionism work out for Republicans,” he told me. “Obviously if we win, the verdict will not be very positive. [But] they’ll have to have a discussion within their own party as to whether it’s viable to continue as merely a hard-right party of obstructionism.”
At the GOP convention in Tampa, Romney’s most effective moment in a convention otherwise geared toward nursing right-wing grievances was when he invoked Obama’s grandiosity and then pledged, plainly and directly, to improve the lot of struggling voters. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” Romney said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
Embedded in most of these answers, Democratic and Republican alike, is the assumption that Washington dysfunction will continue unabated — or else it will get worse. The most aggressive doomsayers predict that a Romney loss will spark a conservative revolt and drive the Republican Party even further to the right.
This is an odd point of agreement, because there’s ample reason to expect things will get better. As the economist Herbert Stein once said, in a phrase that applies as readily to politics as to economics, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” For reasons of history, strategy, and necessity, the conditions that led to four years of intensifying partisanship and dysfunction probably won’t go on either.
As Keith T. Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has documented, polarization in Congress grew steadily for more than a century, and with particular force after the 1970s. In a paper published on the eve of the 2008 election, he wrote that polarization “is higher than at any time since the late 19th century.”
But that trend looks to be finished. “With the 2010 elections,” Poole told me, “the South is almost completely aligned toward the Republican Party, and after November it may fall back a bit.”
Even as they bemoan Republicans, Obama’s advisers say one of the lessons the president has drawn from the last year is that he needs to get out and campaign for his policies. That strategy already paid off for him — twice, in fact — when he stared down Republicans who had vowed to block his payroll tax-cut extensions.
Finally, the impetus for cooperation in Washington today is not what most people imagine it to be — the parties aren’t impelled toward areas of common purpose. What drives agreement is what political operatives call “forcing mechanisms,” events that politicians in all their intransigence simply cannot avoid, such as raising the debt ceiling. Fortunately, a whole series need to be addressed after the election, from the debt ceiling to the budget sequester to the expiring Bush tax cuts.
A second term wouldn’t bring the kind of post-partisan harmony that Obama once promised. But it would be more productive, and might even be more agreeable, than even he seems to realize.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.