Would President Romney have prevented the 'sequester'?

Mitt Romney says he could have done better than President Obama on the sequester. But leadership depends on the balance of power as much as knocking heads.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File
Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney (c.), joined by wife Ann, talks with an unidentified spectator at ringside prior to a welterweight title fight in Las Vegas on Dec. 8. Mr. Romney has emerged from nearly four months in seclusion for an interview with Fox News and is to deliver his first postelection speech this month at Washington’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

If Mitt Romney had won the presidency, would he have headed off the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts commonly known as the “sequester”?

Mr. Romney himself implies that his answer to that question is “yes.” In his big interview Sunday with Chris Wallace on Fox News, Mr. Romney expressed regret at his relegation to the national sideline and said that, if elected, he’d have focused his executive skills on fixing the sequester problem.

“It kills me not to be there, not to be in the White House doing what needs to be done,” he said.

Jeb Bush echoed that sentiment on Tuesday morning, saying in an interview on MSNBC that “I wish Mitt Romney was president right now because I think we’d have someone who would be in the midst of trying to forge consensus,” Bush said. “It breaks my heart that he’s not there, he’s a good man.”

We’re not so sure that President Romney would have succeeded where President Obama has so far failed. But let’s run through his discussion points on the subject, shall we? Maybe you’ll be convinced where we weren’t.

LEADERNESS. In his Fox interview, Romney expressed the common idea that the US chief executive is a lead sled dog pulling the nation in his wake. In the context of an issue of legislative gridlock, such as the sequester, that means the president needs to impose his will on lawmakers, maybe by locking them all in a room until they reach consensus.

“The president brings people together, does the deals, does the trades, knocks the heads together. The president leads. And I don’t see that kind of leadership happening right now,” said Romney.

Yes, but how would knocking a few legislative heads cause the GOP to accept a tax increase? The problem is that there is a deep and substantive divide on fiscal policy between Republicans and Democrats. Invoking “leadership” as a means to close that gap is vague at best.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls this the “Green Lantern” theory of the presidency, after the fictional superhero.

“In this fantasy world, all legislative obstacles can be overcome through the sheer exertion of presidential will.... If you accept the false premise that the president is all-powerful, it’s totally logical!” Professor Nyhan wrote in his definition of Green Lanternism.

SUBTLETY.  Romney also complained to Fox’s Mr. Wallace that Mr. Obama’s response to the sequester crisis has been counterproductive. Obama flew around the country to do public rallies blaming the GOP for economic harm the sequester would allegedly cause, Romney said.

“Now, what does that do?” said Romney. “That causes the Republicans to retrench and then put up a wall and to fight back. It’s a very natural human emotion.”

We’d agree with that – Obama’s pre-sequester public campaign was an attempt to push the GOP towards his position and could well have polarized the issue more than it helped. Presidential public speeches often have that effect. The Republican lawmakers resisting the Democratic position here are doing so due to their own electoral imperatives. Most are from GOP-leaning districts or states and would pay a political price at home if they moved toward Obama.

That said, should legislators base their votes at all on the fact that the president is annoying them?

PERSUASIVENESS. Romney noted that as governor of Massachusetts he’d had to deal with a heavily Democratic legislature. He said that what Obama needs to do in the current context is stop campaigning and work on lawmakers individually.

“He’s the only one that can say to his own party: Look, you guys, I need you on this – and get some Republicans aside and, say, pull them off one by one. We don’t have to have these gridlock settings, one after the other, on issue after issue.”

OK, this sounds great but, again, exactly how does the president change minds about the core fiscal beliefs that are causing the divide between the parties? (See “Green Lantern,” above.) Does he scare them? What? President Lyndon B. Johnson used to accomplish this by liberal use of federal funds – promising Western senators huge water projects to back civil rights, for instance. But Obama doesn’t have the money to do this, and a Republican president would, in any case, likely be philosophically opposed to such an approach.

Here’s our bottom line: President Romney’s ability to handle the sequester would have been entirely dependent on his electoral context. If he’d been elected amid a GOP landslide that flipped the Senate Republican, he would indeed have prevented it, because his party would have had unified control of the government. If Democrats had held the Senate, despite his election, he’d be in the same position as Obama, only the reverse. He’d be trying to convince Senate majority leader Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats to back an all-cut package of deficit reduction.

And that’s why Obama’s in the situation he is. It’s about the balance of American power – not too few meetings and not enough knocked heads.

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