How Today’s Election Does and Doesn’t Matter

Portrait by John Vanderlyn, The White House Historical Association; Illustration by Bloomberg View Close

Portrait by John Vanderlyn, The White House Historical Association; Illustration by Bloomberg View

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Portrait by John Vanderlyn, The White House Historical Association; Illustration by Bloomberg View

If you find yourself despondent after Election Day and contemplating a move to Canada -- either the socialist cafes of Toronto or the libertarian wilds of the Yukon -- allow us to offer some advice: Stay put. Mr. James Madison’s got your back.

There is no denying that this election between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney is consequential. Although the range of contested policy issues is not vast, it is deep. Among the most serious is whether about 30 million Americans will gain access to health insurance and whether long-term deficit reduction will begin with tax increases or with service and subsidy reductions. The status of gay Americans is not determined by which party holds more power in Washington, but it is powerfully influenced by it. And in four states the right to marry is on the ballot. Climate change is, unjustifiably, a partisan issue. Likewise, the balance of power in the Supreme Court, and the long twilight struggle over abortion rights, depends in large part on the next president.

These stakes are real. They are also easily overdramatized. Political campaigns have the unfortunate effect of stirring fear, uncertainty and doubt about the plans and motivations of the other side. Fortunately, these emotions have a way of dissipating amid the mundane work of governing.

The revocation of the New Deal promised by Tea Party candidates in 2010 is no closer to fruition in 2012, in part because voters have shown little appetite for slashing the social safety net. (This discovery also explains Romney’s late rhetorical dash toward the center.) Meanwhile, the peculiar realities of our constitutional system, even in an era of acute polarization, can dull as much as sharpen the edges of conflict.

If the national vote yields a Democratic Senate, a Republican House and a president from either party with a narrow margin of victory, the man in the Oval Office won’t be sitting astride a political steamroller. Conflict among the branches should minimize the threat of radical amendments to the social contract. At the same time, the government’s deep fiscal imbalance and accumulated debt have already curbed yearnings for new government programs.

Compromise in this new environment won’t be any more easily achieved than it was before the election. The difference is that it will be more urgent. If Congress does nothing, previously mandated spending cuts and tax increases will take place in January -- and there’s nothing like the prospect of a tax increase to concentrate a politician’s mind. It also helps that the two parties have the obvious outlines of a deal: tax increases in return for entitlement cuts.

So if your favored candidate falls short at the polls, don’t fret. Madison’s constitution ensures that an Election-Day loss does nothing to diminish your citizenship. If anything, the American system is designed to placate the losers almost as much as reward the winners.

The ensuing gridlock is unproductive, even destructive. It was hardly unforeseen. Madison’s solution to parties “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good” was not to make the victors all-powerful but to shunt them through a legislative obstacle course.

With the institutional powers of Washington set one against the other, Madison reasoned, the nation’s well-being wouldn’t depend on “enlightened statesmen,” a breed he deemed rare enough in his own time. Instead, he envisioned a government that could muddle through under the stewardship of political leaders of limited virtue and no great talent.

We’ve had a few like that. Thankfully, neither of today’s candidates qualifies.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on recognizing the costs of climate change; Noah Feldman on the most civil presidential campaign ever; Jeffrey Goldberg on picking a president for the zombie apocalypse; William Pesek on the rampant corruption of China’s leaders; Ramesh Ponnuru on why neither party wants to talk about drones; Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on Romney’s tax plan; Klaus Adam on why Greece needs to be cut off from borrowing.

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