If President Obama loses to Mitt Romney (which remains unlikely) it would be difficult to see it as anything other than a breakdown of democratic accountability. That's a small d as in democracy, not party. Andrew Sullivan reminded me of this today, after reading yet another conservative columnist pretending that President Obama pushed Republicans away and governed as a partisan. As Sullivan demonstrates so well, that's not what happened. You can go back and look at the record.
The action that would come to define Obama's term happened in the first month, when after extensive wooing of Republicans and compromising of liberal priorities, a stimulus bill composed of one-third tax cuts and two-thirds spending failed to gain a single Republican vote in the house. The Republicans, having presided over the crisis that threw them out of power, determined that the quickest way to get back in power was to refuse to do anything to solve the crisis. Before long, your crisis becomes the next guy's crisis. You don't own it anymore.
The important thing to realize is that as a political matter this was a great insight, and it worked. Republicans made huge gains in 2010 and are now in striking distance of the presidency. So if politics is your game, it worked masterfully. But as a matter of morality or patriotism, the Republican strategy has been a disaster because it has demonstrated more clearly than at any time since the secession crisis that a political faction can put their ideological aims ahead of the basic well-being of the country and not necessarily be punished for it by voters.
It is in this sense that a Romney victory would be harmful to the fabric of our democracy. It is important to recover the events of the early Obama presidency and think about what actually happened. It is irrational to suppose that Republicans did not vote for the stimulus because they genuinely believed it was bad for the country. How could this be, when the Republicans had already responded to the 2001 and 2007 recessions by passing stimulus? How, when economists of every stripe were desperately calling for the federal government to step in and spend money? How, when the party's own standard bearer, John McCain, had a plan to start his presidency with stimulus? Ockham's razor is apt here: the simplest explanation is that Republicans did a sudden 180 on this because they perceived (correctly) that it was the quickest way back to power.
It's really difficult to game out a scenario of the past 4 years that involves Republicans being willing to compromise and does not end in significantly lower unemployment, and thus President Obama cruising to reelection. For example, independent economists estimate that over 1 million more Americans would be working today if President Obama's jobs bill had passed last year. If you are blinded by partisanship, somehow the reelection of a president begins to loom larger in your mind than millions of unemployed people.
So this doesn't mean that Republican politicians are deliberately putting their own interests ahead of the country's. It is obvious that they have done exactly that in these past four years, but the process by which that happens is not direct. Rather, people manage to convince themselves that their own interests and those of the country just happen to converge. So for example, by holding the line against everything President Obama wants to do, they are saving the country from socialism or some such, even though their actions produce higher unemployment in the meantime. In their own minds it is worth it. But that does not excuse them, because ideological extremism and excessive partisanship are roads you choose to take, even if the resulting moral cul-de-sac you arrive at is not your intended destination.