11/12/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

What Winning Means

The quadrennial choice for president is the only time all Americans vote on the same question. At the same time we do that, we also elect one-third of the Senators and the entire House of Representatives, but in smaller geographic units.

It used to be that, if the winning side in an election did not have enough of a majority to pass its legislation, it knew it needed to compromise with the losing side. And the losers knew that they could influence the legislative outcome because the winners needed their votes. But, having lost the election, they tended to accept the fact that the winners got to set the agenda and the framework for the legislative solutions to problems and that their own role was to tweak - sometimes in important ways - the legislation.

Now that the 2012 election is behind us, the first big question is whether or not the Republicans, having lost the White House and the Senate, will follow that tradition. Even more, it is whether John Boehner, as Speaker of the House can keep the members on his rightward fringe in check and be able both to craft compromises with the Democrats and to deliver enough votes that, when added to those of House Democrats, legislation can pass that moves the country forward on the many problems we face. If he cannot, How will the President respond? And what will he be able to do on his own, without legislation, to address those vexing problems.

On one such issue, Barack Obama made it clear during the campaign that to get our fiscal house in order would require increased revenue as well as cuts in spending. More specifically, he argued that the megarich should pay more in taxes, the rest of us were already paying enough, and what money we had was needed to enable us to buy things and, thus, support demand that could, in turn, fuel the economic recovery. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, made a case for a different approach. The president won. And Mr. Romney and the Republicans, not able to persuade the voters of their position, lost. Yet, today, even though Republicans lost a number of winnable Senate seats and have a smaller caucus than in the last Congress, Mitch McConnell, their leader in the Senate, said he would not permit taxes to be raised on anyone. Will the president call his bluff and let all the Bush tax cuts expire - including those on the 99 percent - and then make the case to the country that Republicans insisted that taxes go up for everyone in order to keep the richest one percent from having to pay a higher share?

On Medicare, both candidates proposed cutting spending - they even agreed on the amount. But the president, wanting to preserve the program's value for seniors and others who depend on Medicare, proposed doing it without reducing benefits. Instead, he would save millions by ending the windfall that private insurers earn from the Medicare Advantage program and by reducing payments to some providers. He would also use Medicare policy to stimulate providers of services to find ways to improve the quality of care and keep down the costs. Republicans defined the Medicare problem more simply. They just want to limit federal spending, which they would do by capping it at a fixed amount and distributing those funds to Medicare beneficiaries in the form of vouchers. Then, the beneficiaries would apply the vouchers toward the purchase of coverage in the private health insurance marketplace. The main problem, of course, is that Republicans cannot guarantee that the voucher would cover all the services people need or that it would keep up with the rising cost of insurance. Inevitably, beneficiaries would wind up with less coverage than they have now.

It is fair to say that, to the extent that voters focused on policy issues like these, the majority voted for the president's proposals and rejected those of Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans. So, why doesn't the election result entitle the president to act on these matters as he said he would? And, to the extent that the Congress must act (e.g., on tax and spending legislation), why doesn't it leave members of the House and Senate to make adjustments around the edges? Isn't that what winning means?