By Ramesh Ponnuru
This election is likely to result either in a continued face-off between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans or in a unified Republican government led by Mitt Romney.
The first scenario is a recipe for legislative gridlock, because neither side accepts the other's view of how to promote the national interest and neither side will read the election results as a reason to compromise.
Even in the second scenario, though, getting legislation through Congress is going to be very hard.
All new presidents want to accomplish a lot quickly. For Romney, however, the clock will tick more loudly. Tax rates are scheduled to rise in the new year. He will need legislation to roll them back, and to make good on his campaign promise to cut them an additional 20 percent. The 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling reduces planned defense spending starting next year, and Romney says he wants to reverse that, too.
Perhaps worst for Romney, the government will hit the debt ceiling again early next year. During the primaries, he pledged not to raise it unless Congress passes a constitutional amendment to limit federal spending to 18 percent of the economy. That would take a two-thirds vote by the House and the Senate. It's not going to happen.
A Romney presidency, in other words, would have to start with his breaking a promise to conservatives.
He would have to get Republican congressmen to break their own promises, too, because many of them made the same pledge he did. And he wouldn't be able to rely on Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling. Especially if Republicans have just taken the Senate, Democrats will probably do what minority parties usually do: let the majority take the heat for an unpopular but necessary step. Since any Republican majority in the Senate is likely to be narrow, Romney won't have votes to spare.
Romney also says he wants to restructure Medicare and Medicaid, repeal Obama's health care law, reform the tax code and put the country on a path to a balanced budget. He could, in theory, wait to tackle those issues (unlike tax rates, defense spending and the debt ceiling). But some congressmen might want to tie them together — for example, they may want to replace defense cuts with reductions in other parts of the budget, and that might require shrinking Medicare or Medicaid.
If Romney tries to achieve some of his goals by reaching a grand deal with the Democrats, he will find the obstacles are large. Democrats won't accept any bargain unless it raises taxes on the rich and leaves Obama's health-care plan in place. Republicans, with control of Congress and the White House, won't see why they should concede on either point.
There has been a lot of debate in recent weeks about whether all of Romney's budgetary goals can be reconciled as a matter of mathematics. Even if they can, it's not clear they can be reconciled legislatively. It seems highly likely that Romney will have to abandon some of his goals. Many pundits have cast doubt on whether he would really push to repeal Obama's health care law, transform Medicare or balance the budget.
The prevailing view has been that Romney will stick with his tax cuts, on the assumption that they are what matter most to Republicans. My own sense is that today's Republicans care much more about spending. Romney adopted the 20 percent tax-cut plan late in the primaries, and it doesn't seem to have stirred much grassroots enthusiasm. (Neither did most of his primary rivals' tax-cut plans.)
All Romney said about taxes in his address to the Republican convention was that he would cut them for businesses and not raise them for the middle class. He isn't running on his tax plan the way earlier Republican nominees such as George W. Bush, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan ran on theirs.
Holding out for a 20 percent tax-rate reduction in addition to the extension of the Bush tax cuts will make Romney's budget math harder. He would have to raise the debt ceiling more, for example. And the economic payoff is low: Cutting the top tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent increases the incentive to work, save and invest by only 11 percent, a much smaller supply-side effect than the Reagan tax cuts had.
My bet is that Romney's tax cut would fall victim to a growing Republican realization: Even if they triumph this November, they will find it very hard to legislate.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.