Even though the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are over a month away, there’s little doubt that the 2012 general election is already underway. Pundits are constantly talking about the latest polls, electoral math and the faults of each campaign.

Yet in the midst of the breathless media coverage of the daily back-and-forth of the presidential campaign, political commentators aren’t emphasizing one very important detail: no matter who wins the presidential election, the gridlock that’s currently preventing pretty much anything from getting done in Washington will continue — or even worsen — unless one party gains control of the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress.

The Republicans in the 112th Congress are commonly blamed for Congress’ inability to get any meaningful legislation passed. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein observed, “When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.” This statement deserves some consideration because, as NPR noted in April, Mann and Ornstein “have been in Washington for more than 40 years — and they’re renowned for their carefully nonpartisan positions.” Ornstein also told NPR that since President Obama was inaugurated, “when we did get action, half the political process viewed it as illegitimate, tried to undermine its implementation and moved to repeal it.”

For example, Congress holds many symbolic votes, which are a blatant waste of time and money. Their time — along with taxpayers’ dollars — should be spent on actually finding solutions to our country’s problems. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional, the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the law, despite the fact that the Democrat-controlled Senate definitely wouldn’t repeal the law and that President Obama would veto the repeal if it actually passed both houses of Congress. It was the 33rd time the House tried to repeal all or parts of President Obama’s health care law. CBS News reported that these efforts have “taken up at least 80 hours on the House floor” and have cost taxpayers “a little under $50 million” total. No wonder Congress’ approval ratings are at historic lows.

But don’t expect these kinds of tactics to end if Democrats lose control of either the White House or the Senate. After nearly four years of relentless Republican obstruction, I highly doubt the Democrats are going to conclude that it’s time to let the Republicans do whatever they want now that they control a majority of the governing bodies in Washington. Democrats will instead do everything in their power to block Republican legislation from becoming law. As long as Democrats control the White House, the Senate or the House, the gridlock will continue.

It’s even more unlikely that the gridlock will end if President Obama wins a second term, yet the president remains hopeful. In June, he told donors in Minneapolis, “My hope and my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again” on issues like deficit reduction. But while this might conceivably be true for establishment Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner — and that’s only if we’re being extremely idealistic — does anyone believe for a minute that the Tea Party Republicans are suddenly going to relent and start cooperating with President Obama? I’m skeptical.

While nobody knows exactly how the 2012 elections will turn out, early estimates indicate that there won’t be any seismic shifts in power in Washington. Using an election forecasting model, Prof. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University concluded in March, “It would be surprising if Republicans did not hold onto their majority in the House in 2012 and gain at least a few Senate seats.” Democrats will fight hard to prevent Republicans from gaining control of the Senate, implicitly arguing that a divided government is better than a Republican-dominated government. Also, with a Republican Party that’s increasingly influenced by the extremism of the Tea Party, the Democrats’ concerns have some legitimacy. However, if the past two years are any indication of how the next few years will proceed, a divided government isn’t much better.

In short, unless the Republicans win control of all three governing bodies in Washington, don’t expect 2012 to be an earth-shattering election. I’m still optimistic about our country’s future, but it’s going to take some time before we can make any real progress.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.

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