Election 2012: How Romney might lead on new Washington terrain

Romney White House scenarios beyond a top-down CEO approach. A two-part election 2012 report profiles the stark differences and interesting similarities of a second-term Obama White House vs. a Romney White House – either of which would have to deal with a highly polarized Congress.

Staff illustration
This two-part cover story for the Oct. 15 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly looks here at how a Romney White House might operate and in a companion article at how a second-term Obama White House might be different.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, chances are the Republicans will also have swept Capitol Hill, holding onto the House and taking the Senate.

But history has shown that one-party control of the White House and Congress guarantees nothing – especially in the highly partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington.  

And if the Republicans win the Senate, the majority will be slim. Democrat Harry Reid, as wily an operator as anyone on Capitol Hill, would become the Senate minority leader and could be counted on to use every legislative tool available to thwart a President Romney.

Any discussion of a Mr. Romney presidency lands on three key questions: Will the Republican former governor of Democratic Massachusetts, who has never served in Washington, be able to navigate the complexities of Congress, even with Republican majorities? What did Romney learn from his experience in Massachusetts, particularly in enacting health-care reform? And what do his struggles as a politician – a diffidence and opaqueness acknowledged even by his supporters – mean for his ability to build support for his agenda once in office?

Republican strategists unaffiliated with the campaign say Romney's biggest hurdle is to get elected in the first place. Once in office, they say, he'd deploy his considerable analytical and problem-solving skills – honed in a successful career in private equity.

"His challenge has been in being a superb political candidate, not in being a superb political leader," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, speaking before the Oct. 3 debate, which Romney was widely seen to have won.

The need to communicate effectively doesn't end with the election, says Mr. Ayres, but campaigning and governing are dissimilar enterprises: "Romney's ability to analyze a situation and find points of agreement is critical for governing effectively. Being a candidate is more about drawing distinctions and highlighting differences, as opposed to finding areas of agreement."

In the Oct. 3 debate, Romney was asked about the criticism of his vagueness about which exemptions and deductions he would change in the tax code while lowering all rates. His answer suggested the vagueness was intentional, that it foretold openness to collaborating with Congress: "[In] my experience as a governor, if I come in and lay down a piece of legislation, and say, 'It's my way or the highway,' I don't get a lot done. What I'd do is the same way that [Democratic House Speaker] Tip O'Neill and [Republican President] Ronald Reagan worked together...."

Analyses of Romney's style of governing Massachusetts reveal a man who took office with a chief-executive-officer approach to government, and learned that his top-down style didn't work. Some initiatives "vanished without a trace" because he hadn't cultivated relationships in the Democratic legislature, write Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in "The Real Romney." "Romney, never a backslapper, invested little in building such ties – or even in getting to know the players."

The major exception came well into Romney's term, when he worked with Democratic state legislators to enact landmark health-care reform. But even there, the Globe reporters write, Romney left most of the horse-trading to others. Only when the effort appeared on the verge of failure did he intervene, at one point personally going on a Sunday morning to legislative leaders' homes to twist arms. He also got critical backing from the state's Democratic titan, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

When asked about Romney's ability to work across the aisle, his campaign is more likely to tout his economic record in Massachusetts – a balanced budget without raising sales or income taxes – than his health-care overhaul.

That points to one of the central conundrums of Romney's pitch for the White House: He can't talk much about his signature legislative achievement. As the model for "Obamacare," with its requirement that most individuals purchase insurance, "Romneycare" is anathema to Republican orthodoxy. During his first  debate with Obama, Romney did tout his health reform, emphasizing the states' right to choose their own path: "What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation, state by state." Lingering doubts about Romney will color his dealings with Congress if he's elected. He may, for example, find it impossible to give a little on tax increases in the name of reaching a "grand bargain" with Democrats on long-term deficit reduction – that is, if he did have a notion of reverting, even a bit, to his moderate approach.

The same would hold true for the "fiscal cliff"– the tax increases and spending cuts that will result if there's no action by the end of the year. If Romney is elected, Republicans have an incentive to delay a fix until after inauguration.

At that point, "it would be very difficult for Romney initially to do anything but give the Republican legislature its opportunity to produce a proposal that it can pass," says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

And even if Romney learned a thing or two in Massachusetts about working with lawmakers, his experience there may have only limited relevance to Washington.

"The legislature in Massachusetts was almost entirely Democratic; and in Washington, he'll face two parties in a divided and highly partisan Congress no matter the outcome of the congressional races this year," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University near Boston. "He'll also have to deal with a party of his own that is far to the right and where the energy of the party is coming from a lot of people who want him to go to war with the Democrats rather than try to find bipartisan solutions."

Romney has promised an action-packed Day 1 if elected. In one ad, he promised to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, introduce tax cuts, and "begin replacing Obamacare," starting with waivers to all 50 states. In another, he promised to announce deficit reductions, "stand up to China" on trade, and begin "repealing job-killing regulations."

Day 1 is probably more a metaphor than a literal to-do list for his first day in office. But the point is taken: He's champing at the bit to undo as much of Obama-ism as fast as he can. What he doesn't say is that he'll need Congress to do it.

An Obamacare repeal would not be a done deal – even with Republican majorities in Congress. Along with a House majority, only a 51-vote Senate majority would be needed to repeal parts of the law. Repeal of other pieces would require a 60-vote Senate threshold to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Short of repeal, a Romney administration "would have a great deal of discretion to implement its policy choices," health law expert Timothy Jost writes on the Healthaffairs.org blog.

That's not the same as starting over on the more market-based health-care system Romney envisions.

Beyond eliminating a key piece of his predecessor's legacy, Romney would certainly want to put his own stamp on his presidency. Having promoted his expertise on job creation, he'd be under enormous pressure for quick results.

Then there's entitlement reform, the heart of running mate Paul Ryan's plan. Romney's version of that plan could be his signature initiative. The question is whether he'd have a voter mandate to remake the "big three"– Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The answer may depend on the margin of victory, says Republican pollster David Winston. "When you win by a large percentage, that gives you momentum," he says.

If the latest polls are any guide, the victory margin for either candidate is likely to be slim. But after the first debate, which shifted momentum abruptly in Romney’s direction, it’s anybody’s guess how this race will wind up. The second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, will provide the next clues.

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