Plus, members of Congress don’t report to a national electorate but to their state or district. If Obama narrowly wins the election but badly loses Kentucky, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell really betraying the will of the people in organizing relentless opposition to Obama’s policies? McConnell’s certainly not betraying the will of his people.
Worse, members of Congress — particularly Republicans — increasingly fear their primary election opponents more than their general election opponents. If you’re a Republican in a reliably Republican district or state, you’re probably more likely to lose to a far-right primary challenger than to a Democrat. (Just ask Bob Bennett, the former senator of Utah, or Richard Lugar, who just lost the Republican Senate primary in Indiana.) As a result, the voters you’re most eager to assuage aren’t just Republicans, but hard-core conservatives. They definitely don’t want you standing down out of obeisance to some abstract notion of “mandates.”
Finally, when a party loses an election, it turns its attention to regaining power. In Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, he reports on a strategy dinner attended by top Republicans, including Rep. Eric Cantor, Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Ryan, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Draper quotes McCarthy saying. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
McCarthy, of course, was right. Minorities don’t become majorities by helping the other party govern successfully. When things go well, voters reward the party in charge. More often, they become majorities by grinding the gears of government to a halt, amping up partisanship and doing all they can to make voters disgusted with Washington. The belief that minority politicians will clap majority colleagues on the back, mutter “good game,” and get out of the way is fantasy.
There is one theory of change that works even in an age of intense polarization: having the votes to pass your agenda. Obama learned this when the Senate approved healthcare reform with zero Republican votes. Ryan talks about the “moral authority” to enact fundamental reforms, but if his budget passes, it will do so because Republicans gain control of both chambers of Congress, and budgets can’t be filibustered in the Senate. Obama, who is likely to face a divided Congress if he’s reelected, will have to hope that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the “trigger” of the spending sequester give him sufficient leverage to force Republicans to work with him.
Fiscal policy is a special case in which the consequences of gridlock will make action necessary and Senate rules make passage easier. On most issues, neither Obama nor Romney is likely to have the votes or cross-party cooperation to get much done. Washington is too bitterly polarized for that, and the U.S. political system is too easy to stymie. If voters don’t like that state of affairs — if we want elections to produce leaders who can govern effectively — then the question, really, is, What is our theory of change? Because simply turning Democrats and Republicans in and out of office doesn’t seem to be working.