9 September 2012
In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni indulged in a drive-by slur on Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, noting that he was seen talking with Karl Rove in Tampa. Bruni speculated that if Brown beats Elizabeth Warren in November, he will follow the Romney roadmap to Presidential nomination in 2016, moving to the right to attract the votes he would need to win the primaries. Warren’s own national ambitions make Bruni’s guilt-by-association slam disingenuous: she’s the more obviously hungry for it, which may explain why Obama derailed her earlier play for visibility. Why promote a challenger?
Brown is an instinctive centrist. If the Republicans continue to cleave to the right, he would be better off running as a Democrat in 2016, particularly if the other candidates are left of center. Warren’s Senatorial run appears to be a stepping stone to a Presidential run in 2016. She is considerably to the left of Obama, so her victory in 2012 and visibility in the Senate would give her good exposure. A Brown victory, on the other hand, would make him a likely Republican ally of Obama—assuming Obama’s reelection—in the Senate. This would burnish his centrist credentials. Brown paired with Romney is harder to parse. If the British betting shops are right, a Romney victory will be accompanied by a leftward swing in Congress, which could mean Warren, not Brown, whereas an Obama victory will swing Congress toward the Republicans.
If Obama wins, which is my guess at this point, Paul Ryan will be set back and Brown, if he wins, too, will be ascendant. The Republicans, despite their congressional victories, would still have to do the Presidential math. All those haters don’t add up to a Presidential plurality. Brown, who isn’t identified with any of the party's numerous hater factions, could be the man of the hour.
Parenthetically, it doesn’t look to me like Ryan will really help Romney, although it may be too soon to say this. Why he made stuff up in his convention address is a real mystery, but it makes the argument that his budget proposal is also made up seem more plausible. That proposal is pretty thin, but Ryan deserves some credit for saying that Medicare and Social Security need to be part of any long-term fix. By leaving the military untouched, though, he's omitting the other obvious budgetary elephant in the room. Including it would have shown more courage.
Which brings me back to Simpson Bowles: even now, people are saying that Obama should revive it as the starting point for a national debate, if that’s possible, about how we go forward. The weekend Financial Times dinged Obama for saying nothing of substance in his big speech. On the job front, this probably makes sense—it’s why Romney didn’t say anything, either. Obama would have to introduce “socialist” measures like the WPA, whereas Romney could only go on repeating that a faster recovery will generate more jobs “at some point.” But pointing to Simpson Bowles, which after all was done on his watch, would give Obama a belated opportunity to “add substance.” He could still argue that the primaries and the current election have brought the budget into high relief and that he intends to lead the debate and hammer out a resolution that balances the nation’s human and fiduciaries responsibilities.
If we have any luck at all, the 2012 election will leave voters with a sour taste for right-left polarization. The mudslinging that’s now going on seems to be falling on increasingly deaf ears as voters turn off, leaving the partisans talking to themselves. With the outcome coming down to a handful of states, the turnout elsewhere could be thinner than usual, and the winner’s mandate correspondingly watered down. In the vacuum that follows, either the extremes will grow bolder—four years of inaction—or the center will emerge as a pragmatic force, with people like Scott Brown building power the old bipartisan way.