Did Anyone Learn Anything?

Let’s recap, shall we? For months Barack Obama and Mitt Romney waged a fierce, substantive battle against each other over some (though not nearly all) of the most consequential issues facing the country. At the broadest level, they debated the state’s natural role in providing support and mobility to working people and how to pay for it. Obama won that debate, pretty decisively.

And yet, it only took about an hour after the networks called the election for Republicans to renew their opposition to raising taxes on high income earners, leaving us right back where we started.Well, sort of. It’s certainly true that in the weeks ahead we’re going to return to the same sort of high stakes legislating that destroyed Congress’ approval ratings last year. Indeed, the fight is already taking shape precisely because Republicans are determined not to acknowledge Obama’s victory on the tax issue — a bold move considering that if Obama campaigned on anything it was to raise taxes on the wealthy; and that Republicans were prepared, in the event of victory, to entirely remake the social compact.

But that’s not to say the whole thing was pointless, and I wonder if on a broader horizon, Obama’s victory will chasten Republicans, at least insofar as they approach the safety net programs they’ve been eyeing for decades. Not that they’ll abandon ideas like Medicare privatization forever, or make peace with the health care law. But my suspicion is that those ideas will go back onto the shelf for a long while, either until they become completely irrelevant or until Republicans believe they can return to power and convincingly deploy them.

If that’s the case, then that’s the substantive legacy of the Obama-Romney campaign — that there’s no mileage in repealing the health care law or in organizing the party around plans to dismantle crucial social programs in one stroke. And the first test will come in several months when Republicans draw up a new budget. If they soften the demands of their previous budgets, then the election will have settled those issues in a healthy, though perhaps temporary, way. If not, then I guess nobody learned anything and we’re in for a few more years of the same monotony.