Why the GOP Should Fear a Romney Presidency

At best, he would be hamstrung by the conflicting demands of a radicalized party. At worst, he would wreck the Reagan coalition.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

What kind of president would Mitt Romney be? And what should we expect from Barack Obama's second term? To answer these questions, I'll draw on the work of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek, who has argued that presidents' fortunes depend on how they establish their political legitimacy in the particular circumstances under which which they assume power. In this essay, I'll discuss the prospects for a Romney presidency; in the next, I'll discuss the second term of an Obama presidency.

Reconstruction or Disjunction?

When new presidents take office, they face not only the country's existing domestic and international problems but also the political regime created by their predecessors. That regime consists of the interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion, and the relative strength of the parties' electoral coalitions. Our current political regime emerged in the wake of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and it has continued even through the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It is politically conservative and skeptical of government, at least in contrast to the New Deal/civil-rights regime that preceded it. And the Republicans have been the dominant party.

Skowronek's key insight is that a president's ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in "political time": Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?

For example, Lyndon Johnson was allied with the Democrats' New Deal regime, while Richard Nixon -- the second Republican elected after FDR -- was opposed to it. And the regime itself can either be resilient or vulnerable. For example, Harry Truman became president when the New Deal regime was robust, while Jimmy Carter took office when it was on its last legs.

A president who has the good luck to run in opposition to a political regime that is falling apart is in the best possible position politically. He can sweep away the old and begin a new regime with a new set of political assumptions. Such "reconstructive" presidents seize the opportunity provided by being in the right place at the right political time; they create a new political reality that their successors inhabit. Franklin Roosevelt was able to blame Herbert Hoover and Republican ideology for the country's predicament during the Great Depression, just as Ronald Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats during the economic difficulties of the late 1970s. Reconstructive leaders -- Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan -- are generally regarded both as pivotal in American history and among the country's most successful presidents.

Conversely, the unluckiest presidents -- like Hoover and Carter -- are those with the misfortune to be associated with a political regime in rapid decline. Skowronek calls these presidents "disjunctive," because they cannot hold their party's factions together, and things fall apart. These presidents are usually judged failures, and they place their successors in the best possible position to pick up the pieces and reconstruct politics in a new way.

The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president -- a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.

What Skowronek calls "affiliated" presidents take office allied with a regime that is still relatively strong. George H.W. Bush is a recent example. Affiliated presidents can be quite successful, but their political opportunities are strongly shaped by the interests and ideology of the dominant regime. Ultimately their political legitimacy depends on their ability to meet new challenges and innovate in ways that do not offend party orthodoxy. Lyndon Johnson, for example, sought to complete Roosevelt's New Deal in his Great Society programs. George H.W. Bush's presidency was widely regarded as Ronald Reagan's third term. But when Bush raised taxes, he faced challenges within his own party for violating Republican ideology.

The last group of presidents is the most interesting: They take office opposed to a still robust political regime. Skowronek calls them "preemptive" presidents, because they must find a "third way" to establish their legitimacy and forestall opposition. Bill Clinton, the first Democrat elected after Reagan, is a recent example. Preemptive presidents can achieve a great deal if they understand that they face strong political headwinds and must always trim their sails. They can only survive by appearing moderate, pragmatic, and non-ideological, and by finding ways to borrow ideas from their political opponents. It was Clinton, after all, who announced that "the era of big government is over," and who balanced the federal budget, reformed the welfare system, and continually triangulated in order to maintain his political fortunes. (Barack Obama, as I'll discuss, could fall into this category or could become a reconstructive president.)

The Last of the Reaganites

If Mitt Romney is elected, he will be the fourth Republican president in the Reagan regime. That regime is no longer in its glory days. Demographic shifts have weakened the Republican electoral coalition, while Republican politicians have grown increasingly radical and ideological. At best, Romney will be an affiliated president attempting to revive the Republican brand after it has been badly tarnished by George W. Bush; at worst, he will be a disjunctive president, unable to keep his party's factions together, and presiding over the end of the Reagan coalition.

Throughout his career, Romney has presented himself as a pragmatic, data-driven, hands-on problem-solver. In this respect he resembles our two last disjunctive presidents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Yet in order to secure his party's nomination, Romney has had to twist his positions to conform to the most radical demands of the Republican base.

Part of Romney's problem is that the Republican Party's policy solutions seem -- at least outside the ranks of the faithful -- increasingly ideological and out of touch. No matter what conditions the nation faces, the Republican prescription is to lower taxes, increase defense spending, and weaken the social safety net. These ideas may have made sense in the 1980s. But by 2012, they seem as irrelevant as the Democratic Party's arguments must have seemed to many Americans in 1979.

Romney has been vague about his policy solutions because he rightly surmises that many of them will be quite unpopular. Yet once he becomes president, he will be forced to promote ideological commitments that are increasingly discredited with the public or risk losing political support within his own party. Romney, like Carter and Hoover, has argued that he will be an excellent administrator who will bring special problem-solving skills to the White House. But technocratic expertise is a tenuous strategy for maintaining political legitimacy, especially when a president must make unpopular decisions. Nor will it be enough to satisfy his base.

Movement conservatives have pushed Romney to take extreme positions throughout the 2012 campaign; they won't stop once he becomes president. As Grover Norquist explained in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, "We are not auditioning for a fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget .... We just need a president to sign this stuff." If Romney doesn't do as he's told, he will be in the same predicament as Jimmy Carter, who entered office with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and yet found himself unable to move a domestic agenda because of intraparty bickering.

Romney's Impossible Task

Now assume instead the best-case scenario -- that Romney is an affiliated president carrying forward a still-robust Reagan regime. In that case, a Romney presidency will face two major challenges: factionalism and war.

As a regime ages, divisions emerge within the governing coalition. Affiliated presidents must find ways to give each faction something it wants without alienating the others. The difficulty is that, as time passes, the factions become more self-absorbed, insistent, and radical. Pleasing all of them may prove impossible; in that case, affiliated presidents have to choose which parts of the coalition to ally themselves with, risking the defection of the rest. This is the choice faced by presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who ultimately tilted in favor of a civil-rights agenda in the 1960s, alienating what had previously been the Solid South.

Affiliated presidents also face enormous pressures -- or temptations, depending on how one looks at it -- to use military force to display strength, both to the outside world and, equally important, to their political base. War hawks helped push James Madison into the War of 1812. James K. Polk avoided a war with Great Britain but ended up taking his chances on a war with Mexico. William McKinley found it politically impossible to resist a war with Spain. Sometimes, the results are politically successful; but sometimes, as in the cases of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, they are not.

Romney will face these problems early in his presidency. He will inherit the leadership of a party with commitments to (1) further increasing tax cuts -- especially for the wealthy; (2) reducing deficits; (3) shrinking the size of government; (4) increasing defense spending; and (5) promoting a muscular foreign policy unafraid to use military force to solve foreign-policy problems, for example, in Iran and Syria. At the same time, Romney has promised to "save" popular middle-class entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and to replace Obamacare with reforms that keep its most popular elements but jettison the features that make it economically practical. To top it off, he faces a reckoning in January 2013, when the Bush tax cuts expire and a sequester of defense and social programs goes into effect. That combination of tax increases and spending cuts will help solve the deficit problem, but it risks pushing the economy into a new recession, and it is completely unacceptable to the tax cutters and defense hawks in his party.

Even in the best-case scenario, a Romney presidency will face two major challenges: factionalism and war.

It is very difficult to see how Romney can maintain all of the commitments he has made to the various factions of his party, no matter what he says on the campaign trail. For example, passing the Ryan budget, further reducing tax rates, and repealing Obamacare will exacerbate the deficit problem, not help to solve it. Romney will have to pick and choose among these commitments, and in choosing, he will likely alienate significant segments of his coalition. Moreover, he will face insistent pressures from defense hawks and neo-conservatives in his party to keep the war in Afghanistan going and to use American military force against other targets. (Iran is the most obvious possibility.)

The more aggressive his foreign policy, however, the more it is likely to cost, and the more it will increase federal deficits. George W. Bush faced a similar problem in his first term, and simply arranged with Republicans in Congress to fund his military adventures through supplemental appropriations -- abandoning any pretense of deficit reduction.

To keep the economy afloat, Romney will likely pursue a Keynesian strategy once in office, goosing the economy through a combination of tax cuts and economic stimulus. He will simply choose a different mix than the Democrats would, and call it by another name. Yet this strategy will probably also increase the deficit in the short run and require Romney repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling, risking the ire of the Tea Party.

Romney's advisers have floated the idea that, in order for their leader to make all of the tough choices necessary to solve the country's problems, he should adopt the example of the 19th-century Democrat James K. Polk and be willing to serve for only one term.

Comparing Romney to Polk is both telling and ironic. Telling, because Polk was also an affiliated president -- the second Democrat elected after Andrew Jackson's reconstructive presidency. Just as Romney has promised Republicans that he will follow Ronald Reagan's policies, Polk self-consciously modeled himself after Jackson. Ironic, because Polk's legitimacy as president was often precarious. Polk offered himself as a compromise candidate, and announced that he would serve for only one term, because he wanted to assure the leaders of the various factions in his party that his presidency would not prevent their running in 1848.

Once in office, Polk was not known for making tough choices. He did not seek to stand up to his party's divided factions; instead, he sought to please them all. Polk tried to buy off the various warring elements of the Jacksonian coalition one by one through a combination of fiscal policy, tariff reform, territorial acquisition, and war. Each move created additional political problems. By the end of his term as president, his political situation had become impossible, and he left office a broken man, dying three months later. His policies of territorial expansion, while undoubtedly successful, also led to the tragedy of the Civil War.

If he truly is like Polk, Romney will not be able to make difficult choices in the public interest. Rather, he will find himself hemmed in by the conflicting demands of a radicalized party. Opposition to Barack Obama's presidency unified the Republicans. But once Obama is gone, the various factions of the party will find themselves in fierce competition, and the incoherence of the Republicans' various commitments will emerge starkly.

The predicament of a Romney presidency is that he may make George W. Bush look good by comparison. During most of Bush's eight years in office, the Republican Party was united and willing to follow his lead. Romney will not be so lucky. The party he heads has become so rigid, radical, and unrealistic that, despite his best efforts, he may end up as the last of the Reagan-era Republican leaders -- a disjunctive president like John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, or Jimmy Carter.

Republican partisans have often compared Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, but Obama's situation is quite different from Carter's. Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is a Democrat swimming against the current of Reagan-era Republican politics. Carter, by contrast, took office as the defender of an exhausted New Deal Democratic regime; he offered himself as a problem-solving pragmatist who would get the country moving again. He tried to fix the New Deal coalition but found it beyond repair.

The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president -- a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition. If Obama is reelected, we might decide in hindsight that George W. Bush best fits that description. But if Obama loses, the president who finally unravels Reaganism could turn out to be Mitt Romney.