For the small school of political analysis that draws its inspiration from the great French 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, the cardinal methodological rule is to begin from what one can know “so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” The only important fact about the election contest today that meets this stringent threshold is that someone named either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be declared president, most likely on November 7.
Beginning from this point of certainty, Cartesians are already at work surveying the possible alternative post-November 7 political landscapes. “I prognosticate. Therefore I am.”
The election of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney may be either a larger victory or a narrower one. The resulting four scenarios are as follows:
1. The larger Obama victory, which can be called “Vindication,” refers to a result in which the president wins by a margin of some 3 percentage points or more, in which the Democrats gain more than 12 seats in the House, and in which the Democrats, while losing a seat or two in the Senate, retain control of that body.
2. A narrower Obama victory, labeled “Hanging On,” describes a scenario in which the president ekes out a win by under a point and perhaps captures an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, maybe even by a considerable margin. (This result is what many polls suggest would be the outcome if the election were held today.) Democrats pick up only a few seats in the House, under 10, while Republicans gain a tie in the Senate or, against all odds, capture a majority.
3. A narrower Romney win, “Reversal,” describes a victory margin of under 2 points, a modest loss of 6 to 10 seats for the GOP in the House, and a gain of a couple Senate seats, still leaving Republicans short of a tie or an outright majority.
4. A larger Romney victory, called “Game Change,” designates a scenario in which President Romney is elected by a significant margin, 3 percentage points or more, where Republicans suffer minimal losses in the House, and where the GOP captures the Senate (which, in the case of a Romney victory, requires only a tie). This result will also bring some real surprises, including victories in states that few expected and upset wins in some of the Senate contests. To put a cherry on top, the GOP could pick up a net three or four governorships.
Assessing the probabilities of these outcomes is a task for ordinary punditry. But what is striking about the campaign thus far is that the scenario that was most likely just a few weeks ago, Vindication, appears least likely today, while the scenario that was the least likely at that time, Game Change, is today within the range of plausibility.
The two Obama victory scenarios, while quite different, share key points. An Obama victory, no matter what kind, means that Barack Obama keeps what he has already achieved. From Obama’s perspective, isn’t that mostly what this election is about? President Obama could do almost nothing new in his next term—indeed, he has proposed very little by way of new programs during the campaign—and he will still have accomplished the most important goals of his presidency, which include Obama-care and creating a much larger welfare state. If Obama wins, liberals and conservatives will go on to contest new issues, but they will do so on a new terrain that accepts the core of Obama’s changes.
An Obama victory also secures his place in the pantheon of great progressive leaders. On that imaginary liberal Mount Rushmore—perhaps to be carved out as a shovel-ready project for a new stimulus package—the face of Barack Obama will appear alongside those of FDR and LBJ. These are the three liberal presidents who did something big, something irreversible, in expanding the role of the federal government and altering the relation between citizens and the state.
Of less historic moment but greater interest, Obama’s victory will also settle his ongoing rivalry with Bill Clinton. The theme of the Obama campaign of 2008, Hope and Change, was meant not just as a rejection of George Bush’s policies, but also those of Bill Clinton. Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination added a personal -element to the rivalry, sending Bill for a time to his tent to brood like a postmodern Achilles. Now fast forward to August this year, when President Obama, sensing some vulnerability in his race, asked Bill Clinton to be a featured speaker at the Democratic convention. Appearing back-to-back on the last two nights, Clinton gave a far better defense of the Obama presidency than the president was able to give himself. In bestowing his blessing on Obama, Clinton did not fail to extract a small measure of revenge, stating that “no president, not [even] me . . . could have repaired all the damage” in four years. Still, whatever Clinton’s popularity, an Obama victory guarantees that he will overshadow Clinton in the history books. Obama took the big risk in his first term, refused to play it safe or back off, and he won.
It is fair to ask why a result in which a president loses political strength compared to his first election merits the name of Vindication. After all, other presidents—Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush—increased their margin of victory between their first and second campaigns. But the “meaning” of an election is a political concept. It must be calculated not in absolute terms, but in how it is viewed at the time and plays in the current context. Given the state of the economy, this race began with the assumption, shared by political analysts and the public, that Obama could never equal his margin over John McCain in 2008. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to keep the core of his 2008 coalition, while allowing a drop off of a couple of points. It would be a slight retreat, but with the essential asset safeguarded.
More important, the terms defining the meaning of this election were set by mutual agreement of the two parties in the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans judged their stunning victory to be a repudiation of Barack Obama. Obama viewed it as a small setback to the great mandate of 2008, a proverbial “bump in the road.” Each side dug in—neither had the power to do more—and both accepted that the competing claims to represent the wishes of the American people could only be settled by another election. Politics over the past two years has been about marking time, getting ready for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Vindication means that this contest has been resolved. The understanding of relevant contemporary history—the so-called dominant narrative—has been decided in favor of 2008. A modest Obama victory negates the claim of 2010. Yes, the Republicans still have their majority in the House, but the Democrats, if not the president himself, will say that the 2010 elections were nothing more than a bunch of idiot Tea Partiers getting in the way of the forward movement of history. Vindication will also allow a broader and bolder articulation of the president’s foundational concepts. Obama’s intellectual supporters often played hide and seek during his first term, backing some very bold ideas akin to “we built it,” only to retreat in the face of public opposition to claim that, aw shucks, Obama is nothing more than a country pragmatist. Vindication will allow the president to state more openly his social democratic principles, bringing about the intellectual transformation of American politics that he has sought.
Political campaigns are primarily about devising strategies to win elections. But campaigns have another dimension: They affect the general standing or acceptability of a candidate in the eyes of the American people. Some campaigns add to, or at least do not detract from, a candidate’s general standing. Even members of the losing party, though disappointed, recognize something positive about the victor. Other campaigns burn up a candidate’s standing and spend his moral capital. Obama’s campaign of 2008 was of the positive kind, while his campaign this year, based on personal assaults on his opponent and divisive appeals, has drawn down his stature. The audacity of hope has given way to the defense of Big Bird.
Yet his followers under the scenario of Vindication will find something new in him to admire. Liberals have a moralistic side, waxing poetic about feelings of goodness coursing through them, but they also admire the cool calculator and the tough street fighter. While costing the president among Americans generally, victory will bring him encomiums. There will surely be a new biography, published in 2013, entitled Obama: The Messiah and the Fox.
The Republicans’ position under this scenario is not a pretty one. In terms of institutional power, Republicans will have lost nothing and may even have gained some in the Senate. Yet six months ago Republicans were supposed to have carried the Senate, so a small gain looks more like a loss. Numbers aside, how will they think of themselves? Yes, Republicans can take solace in their strength in many states and in their stable of impressive young leaders. But at the national level, in the short term, it is hard to imagine how they will avoid splitting apart. Will Republicans stop talking about repealing Obama-care? Many will, while others will carry on and blame defeat on Mitt Romney as yet another example of a moderate who lost for a lack of true conviction. Will Republicans resist completely the president’s deficit reduction plan, including a tax increase on the wealthy? Some will stay the course, but others will conclude they must give way. One thing is certain about the scenario of Vindication. If there is one person no one would want to be, it is John Boehner.
Under a scenario of Hanging On, President Obama will gain little or no credit from the 2012 election. If the president should suffer a defeat in the popular vote, it would be a stunning rebuke—a president who has governed for four years and who is rejected by a majority of the American people. Democrats would still hold their victory parties, but the mood would be subdued. The emails and tweets would go out from David Plouffe: smile.
One of the meanings of this outcome is that President Obama will not easily be able to reclaim control of the political narrative. Who owns the majority will remain contested. Still, the president will hold onto his real estate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and there will be no foreclosures. As time goes on, the public will forget about the election results and focus on his record of accomplishment in office.
How much difference will there be in the conduct of politics if Hanging On is the scenario rather than Vindication? Obama will still be able to protect what he has done, but Republicans, especially if they achieve the long shot of winning the Senate, will have more confidence to fight. The public will demand an accommodation of some kind on budgetary matters—this time there will be no waiting for another election—but Republicans can enter these negotiations, supposing that they reach a consensus, on a strong and even superior footing. After all, Congress is still “the first branch of government.” One thing certain to change is the degree of resistance to Obama’s announced plan of working around Congress by administrative means to accomplish certain ends. If Republicans capture the Senate, look for Congress to draw a bright line and strongly defend constitutional principles that limit this new form of presidential usurpation of powers.
A Mitt Romney victory, even by a slim margin, will count for much more than the numbers might suggest. Romney will not only have defeated a sitting president, no small feat, but triumphed over a leader whom Democrats have celebrated as the very best they could offer and the greatest figure of the age. Furthermore, Romney’s win will have all the drama of coming from behind, of an improbable fourth-quarter drive reminiscent of those engineered by John Elway or Eli Manning. Everyone loves a victory, but how much sweeter an upset!
A Romney victory will mean that the people have spoken, definitively. Americans will have said not just that they wish to go in a new direction, but that they want to undo much of what has been done in the past four years. A Romney win provides warrant to erase much of Obama’s program. It also changes the narrative of current political history, according to which 2008 marked a new beginning for modern American politics, akin to Year One of the French Revolution. Suddenly, 2008 appears as the odd election out. It is the aberration. If there is a trend in current political history, it begins in 2010. The cumulative effect of 2010 and 2012 supplies the key for interpreting current -American politics. The implications of this new narrative will likely be pushed back even before 2010. The nation will be reminded that Obama-care, while technically legal, was never legitimate in the first place. It was a product of corrupt buyoffs—remember the Cornhusker Kickback?—and the false prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens. The core of the Obama agenda will be subject to relitigation.
A Romney victory also changes the stature of the central figure in current political history: Barack Obama. It is unlikely that Democrats will openly blame him for defeat, given how much they have invested in him. To condemn Obama would be to indict themselves. But many will begin to kill him softly with faint praise. Having already slipped from an exalted status to that of an ordinary mortal, he will be brought further down, condemned as a person of nothing more than unusual talent and great intellect. As much as Barack Obama has been lionized by his supporters in Washington, few really like him very much, in part because he doesn’t like them very much. Outside of a narrow circle, Obama has few friends in Washington.
Obama’s defeat poses a delicate problem: What do you do with a retired messiah? Resuming a career as a law professor and sitting on boards of progressive foundations just won’t cut it. Something much bigger, such as the presidency of a prestigious university, might come closer to the mark. University presidents do not have that much to do, other than to raise money and deliver high-toned and empty speeches, tasks at which Obama has excelled. Most fitting might be a position at a university in California, where he would be greatly esteemed by the local population and close to his investments in Solyndra and Fisker.
Setting his political agenda aside, President Romney appears as a different kind of political leader. His victory ends the melodrama of the “great leader” who raises politics to a pseudo-religious level. It restores normalcy to the relationship between the public and the presidency. When historians write the account of Mitt Romney’s comeback, they will discover Americans’ latent wish for a steady hand and a more calibrated and businesslike view of what a president should be, and they will take note of Americans’ longing for more self-restraint and greater modesty in presidential conduct. The election will mark an end of charisma and a rebirth of constitutionalism.
A Romney victory will also punch above its weight because of the character of his campaign. Though it was not “elevating” or emotional—that was the point—it was relatively enhancing. Romney did not vilify or impugn his opponent. At most, Democrats accused the Romney campaign of misrepresenting the president, but even here their objection was that he misrepresented himself. He was guilty of vagueness and “Romnesia,” hardly the most serious of all campaign crimes. Most important, however, Romney will escape charges that he bought the election, because the Obama camp spent more.
Democrats facing a Romney presidency confront a grim reality. Who will be put forward as the new face of their party on November 7? It will not be a young and dynamic vice president, nor can it be the governor of the nation’s largest state (Jerry Brown). The current head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the minority leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, are improbable choices. It is difficult, in fact, to imagine what Democratic senator or congressman has the stature at this point to serve as a credible spokesperson. For Democrats it will be a time for regrouping and searching for a new generation of leaders.
The difference between the two Romney victory scenarios for what the election means is not that great. But the differing implications for governance will be substantial. Under the scenario of Reversal, President Romney will face a situation of divided government, with the Senate in the hands of the Democrats. As an interesting “first” in American politics, the two most important leaders in the nation will be Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, both Mormons. But their common faith has never led to a warm working relationship. Democrats under Harry Reid will have to decide what strategy to adopt toward the new president. Having derided the Republicans over the past four years for being the “party of no,” Democrats might find that they wish to adopt that role with a vengeance. But it is unclear whether all Democrats in the Senate would follow this path. They have their own careers to consider, and the Democratic party without any strong national leader in charge will be a different beast altogether. If some Democratic senators are pushed too far, they might not only resist, but consider defecting to the other party.
Divided government would not be the worst situation for a cautious President Romney. If this arrangement allowed him to succeed with his core agenda on economics and tax plans, it might provide a reason for putting off some of the more contentious issues. Divided government allows a president to avoid taking all of the responsibility. The president would have no choice but to honor the easiest of all campaign slogans and work across the aisle.
The Game Change scenario, on the other hand, would raise the Republican party to its highest point since before the Depression. True, Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress after the election of Eisenhower in 1952, and then again after the elections of 2000 and 2004. But in the first case much of the voters’ support for the party was due to the popularity of Ike; in the second, Bush had lost a popular majority; and in the third, Bush was mired in a war and had no goodwill from his adversaries. Romney’s victory would be more advantageous, and it would be backed by support from a huge majority of Republican governors. The scenario of Game Change would represent a remarkable comeback from 2008, when Democrats spoke of the exhaustion—both political and intellectual—of the Republican party and boasted of a massive realignment and a new era of Democratic governance.
No one on the Republican side today will make similar claims. The notions of grandiose leaders and realignments are the fantasies of another age. In any case, such is not the kind of leadership that Mitt Romney will seek to offer. The three breakthrough moments of the last century when plenary power was vested in one party (during the New Deal, the Great Society, and after the election of Obama), are aberrations, caused respectively by the Depression, the assassination of John Kennedy, and a series of accidents in a few Senate races. Republicans will never achieve this kind of majority, and it is best that they do not. A leading characteristic of a Romney presidency will be a return to a more constitutional form of rule, but with a strong popular injunction for a change of course.
Still, such a change of course would be a potential Game Change—opening up the prospect of a period of successful Republican governance in the wake of a failed one-term Democratic presidency. In the final presidential debate, Obama derided Romney’s wish to revive the “policies of the 1980s.” It would be ironic if Obama’s defeat makes possible in the next decade the kind of political dominance by a reenergized conservatism last seen in the . . . 1980s.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.