The most important election of a lifetime? So say Gingrich et al.
As Gingrich faces Romney in Florida, he calls 2012 the 'most important election of our lifetime.' Sometimes he compares its significance to the pre-Civil War era. GOP rivals like Santorum and key Democrats like Pelosi are also gasping about the stakes. Time to catch our breath.
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Presidents and their supporters feel these constraints very quickly. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency, conservatives hoped that he would shrink the federal government by scrapping the Departments of Energy and Education, among others. Facing a Democratic House, he could do no such thing, and those departments are with us 32 years later.Skip to next paragraph
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The limits of power also apply to presidents whose parties dominate Capitol Hill. President Obama came to office with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, yet he had to struggle for enactment of comprehensive health-care legislation. The version that eventually passed Congress disappointed many liberals.
Presidents must often scale back their ambitions when they learn that problems are more complex than they acknowledged on the campaign trail. In 1992, Bill Clinton pledged to welcome Haitian refugees that the Bush administration had turned away. Even before he took office, he had to backtrack when the Coast Guard warned of a massive exodus. Similarly, Obama found that he could not keep his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison by January 2010.
"A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government," wrote James Madison in The Federalist Papers. The parties may think they can win permanent majorities, but when people don't like what the president is doing, they exercise this control at the next midterm election. In 2006, they gave Republicans what President George W. Bush called a "thumping." When it was the Democrats' turn in 2010, Obama called it a "shellacking." Madison didn't use either word, but he would have understood.
Candidates often speak as if they would be immune to checks and controls, such as when Mitt Romney asserts, "I will repeal Obamacare." Presidents lack the power to pass or repeal statutes – only Congress can do that. Although chief executives can try to persuade Congress, they have no guarantee of success.
More generally, presidential contenders draw the future in caricature: If you elect me, my proposals will pass, and all will be well. If my opponent wins … well, just read the Book of Revelation.