President Obama recently conceded that his 2008 vow to "get us out of his polarizing debate... and actually get things done" may have been a bit "naive" considering the current level of gridlock caging Congress. But that hasn't stopped Mitt Romney from resurrecting the promise as his own this cycle - after all, the GOP nominee said during Tuesday's debate: He's done it before, he'll do it again.
"What we have right now in Washington is a place that's gridlocked," Romney said during the second presidential debate at Hoftra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "We haven't had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis. ...I was able to do that in my state, and bring these two together."
According to at least some experts, he may be right. Romney would face a rude awakening if he took on the office of the presidency with the mindset of a Massachusetts governor, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato believes, but former longtime Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren argued the circumstances that would likely accompany a Romney victory in November would be more prone to fuel a workable Congress than would an Obama second term.
"I think Romney was being a little coy" with the suggestion that his leadership would be enough to dissolve the Hill's current partisan firewalls, said Lofgren, who, out of frustration at the "do-nothing" status of Congress, last year famously left his job as a senior analyst on the House and Senate Budget Committees after 28 years on Capitol Hill and authored, "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted." On the stump, Romney time and time again has assured he'll do "everything in my power" to "reach across the aisle and find good Democrats in the House and the Senate that care deeply about America, just as I do."
The argument that a Romney first term would stand a better chance than an Obama second term at jumpstarting Congress has everything to do with presumed logistics, Lofgren explained: "If for whatever reason momentum changes to the point that Romney gets elected, most likely he's going to have retained a Republican House, and it's significantly more likely under those circumstances that he'll have picked up a Republican Senate, too." Furthermore, he continued, "The dynamics of a first-term president always tend to be more activist. With second-term presidents, there's a lot of legacy sniffing."
It's a difficult thing to predict, Sabato cautioned, particularly given the fluidity of House and Senate races. "Right now both candidates are whistling past the graveyard," he said. Romney's argument - seized on by his supporters, including Democrat-turned-Republican former Rep. Artur Davis - that working with Democrats in Massachusetts has prepared him to do the same as president - we've heard that for years from presidents. 'Oh, as governor of Arkansas...' and 'When I was governor of Texas...' It's irrelevant. It's always under completely different circumstances, and certainly not as polarized.
"But you look at Obama," Sabato continued. "He and Republicans in Congress have just not been able to work together. We've had two empty years legislatively, and I don't see that changing just because he gets 51, 52 percent of the vote, which is all we're talking about."
Should the president be reelected and if control of the House and Senate remain the same, the last four years will have been a harbinger of the next, both experts agreed.
"If Romney loses, are Republicans in the House gonna hit themselves on the forehead with the palm of their hands and say, 'We've been doing it all wrong'? No," Lofgren said. "They'll say, 'Well Romney lost because he wasn't a true conservative, so we have to stick to our principles.'" Like Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana and former Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah, both ousted in their primaries by far-right opponents, Lofgren said, "if that very determined base of the Republican Party doesn't think you're holding to your principles, they'll primary you right out of there."
Added Sabato: "Anything Republicans do to help Obama get his agenda done will help the Democratic nominee in 2016, and you can expect them to be very mindful of that."
A Romney win doesn't guarantee a suddenly functioning legislative assembly line, of course. Two things could happen, Lofgren said, that would land Romney in the same intransigent environment muddying Washington now: "If he's elected due to this base - this Tea Party-inspired base that's very fired up - and he's been pandering to that base, he'll still be looking at a lot of constraint if he doesn't completely follow through," he said. And even if Republicans take the Senate, the tables will be turned and "Democrats could prove to be just as disciplined a minority as Republicans were this time around" at blocking legislation.
Still, if a Democratic minority capable of blocking with a filibuster "pulls that trigger as many times as Republicans have," Lofgren said, a budget - debate over which brought the government minutes away from a shutdown last year - could go through under the Senate's reconciliation process. And with Rep. Paul Ryan - Romney's running mate and current chair of the House Budget Committee - as president of the Senate, "he would be that 51st vote," Lofgren said.
While new polls show Romney gaining ground among likely voters in key swing states, though, national polls of registered voters indicate at this point that an Obama reelection is more likely. The good news, Lofgren said, is even without cooperation from Congress, the president has accomplished "a fair amount, considering. Health care and the stimulus - those were big deals."
Whatever the outcome on Election Day, don't expect much from Congress - currently out of session until after the election - in the lame duck period, Lofgren warned. The Bush-era tax cuts, set to expire Jan. 1, and the already-expired farm bill are among legislation that demand attention before the Jan. 21 Inauguration.
"If Romney wins and brings some more with him in the House and Senate, Republicans would probably insist on a temporary extension so they get their own people seated later, and concoct something more to their liking," Lofgren said. "If it's the other way around, I don't think Republicans in the minority not holding the White House would be in any mood to pass some sort of grand bargain."