There's a case to be made (and, in fact, it has been made) that, if what you think the U.S. economy needs is more fiscal and monetary stimulus, you should vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in November (or, if you're not a U.S. citizen, pray for a Romney/Ryan victory). This is despite the fact that Romney and Ryan say they're against fiscal stimulus, and the Republican Party platform calls for a return to the gold standard (the opposite of monetary stimulus). The reasoning is pretty simple: the likely Republican majority in the House and the possible Republican majority in the Senate will work against any attempt by President Obama to stimulate the economy — or do much of anything else, for that matter. Whereas if Romney moves into the White House, Republican lawmakers will cut him slack and the Democrats will too if he pushes policies that they wanted in the first place. A similar if less-stark dynamic could play out on the monetary-policy Federal Open Market Committee, where inflation hawks with Republican leanings would discover they weren't so hawkish after all.
What I hadn't really thought of, until I read conservative scholar Nicholas Eberstadt's epic essay on entitlements, "A Nation of Takers" (it was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, but you want to read the whole thing) is that you could just as easily make the opposite argument. If you think what the nation needs above all is austerity and entitlement reform — meaning entitlement cutbacks — you're likelier to get your way in a second Obama administration than under Romney/Ryan. Here's Eberstadt:
[T]he growth of entitlement spending over the past half century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Between 1960 and 2010, to be sure, the growth of entitlement spending was exponential — but in any given calendar year, it was on the whole roughly 8 percent higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat.
What's more, federal budget deficits have over the past century generally grown under Republican administrations and shrunk under Democrats. And for whatever it's worth, the stock market usually does better under Democrats than Republicans.
What is one to make of all this?
It could be random chance. As I've written before, presidents' impact on short-term economic performance is probably much less than it's usually made out to be.
It could also be the result of the strange political equations that the U.S. system of separating executive from legislative power sets up. Winning the presidency doesn't mean you get to set the agenda for your entire time in office; you may never have a legislative majority, and midterm elections often revitalize your opposition. So knowing which party occupies the White House often doesn't tell us all that much about where the power to make economic policy lies.
In the case of entitlement spending, there's also the interesting development that entitlement recipients in the U.S. now skew old and rural, and so does the Republican base. The convoluted campaign debate over who's going to cut Medicare, the medical-insurance program for the elderly, and who's going to save it, should give some indication that's there's no clear divide between Democrats supporting entitlements and Republicans opposing them.
Finally, there's the basic psychological and philosophical truth that, as economist John Kay puts it, "complex goals are best achieved indirectly." People have no idea what will actually make them happy, city planners build dull cities, and companies that focus on maximizing shareholder return underperform those with different goals. So voting for the candidate whose campaign statements you agree with may get you the opposite outcome of what you want.
I shouldn't overstate my case here. Sometimes presidents deliver what they promise on the campaign trail. Ronald Reagan said he'd cut taxes, and he did. Barack Obama said he'd expand health insurance coverage to all, and he's getting pretty close. Presidents, while often hamstrung on the domestic front, have a lot of leeway to arrange foreign policy as they choose.
Then again, in a big, complex world, the results of presidents' foreign policy choices are often wildly different from what they predicted and intended. Presidents don't always accomplish the opposite of what they commit to on the campaign trail — it would make voting much easier if they did. But the link between avowed priorities and eventual outcomes is a lot more tenuous than is generally acknowledged in our political discourse. And I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or a good thing.