My interest here is in the last paragraph from Yglesias's post:
But I don’t think it’s a given that the opposition party’s leaders will reject the president’s proposals out of hand. It really depends on what they’re more interested in doing. The Democratic Party showed in the 2005 Social Security debate that it’s possible for a Republican President to formulate a proposal that meets with a response of massive resistance, but on most issues—taxes, Medicare, immigration, K-12 education, invading Iraq—there were always Democrats who were eager to cut deals with the Bush administration.That's right, and I think what you see here is the intersection of two different models of understand behavior in general, and politician's behavior in particular. On the one hand, there's certainly a lot of behavior by pols and other elite political actors that can be explained by thinking about electoral incentives -- so we can suppose that the incentives for Republican Senators are different depending on whether they are in the majority or minority, whether the House is Democratic or Republican, whether there's a Democrat or a Republican at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Even there, it's tricky...the incentives for the party as a whole may be different than the incentives for individual Senators (and electoral incentives may conflict with incentives for other goals a Senator might have, such as becoming a national figure or changing the world to his or her liking).
That's not the only way to think about behavior, however. It's also the case, at least sometimes, that pols do what they do not because they're responding to incentives, but because they're following a previous pattern that they believe worked out well for them. That accounts for a lot of electioneering, for example; no one really knows (in many cases) what actually works, but instead whatever winners do gets adopted by everyone whether it actually helped the winner or not. I continue to believe that this sort of "learning" explains Republican actions in Congress over the last couple of years. The lesson Republicans took from 1993-1994 is that simply opposing everything the president does is the key to success against unified Democratic control of government. Thus while the actual 1993-1994 Republicans selectively opposed Bill Clinton (cooperating, for example, on NAFTA, and not filibustering absolutely everything), what they remember is that they chose to oppose rather than to cooperate, and that they triumphed at the polls in 1994.
My sense is that it takes both of these things to add up to the extraordinary rejectionist strategy that Republicans settled on after getting clobbered in both the 2006 and 2008 elections. I've read quite a few liberal observers lately who believe that Republican behavior is strictly rational and reveals a real problem with the political system: Republicans obstruct, the government doesn't work well, voters punish the Democratic incumbents. But that formula, while it may work with the stimulus or unemployment benefits or perhaps Fed appointments, really doesn't apply across the board. Did anyone outside of Washington care that Lael Brainard's nomination was delayed for months? Of course not, and it's hard to make a case that Brainard's absence had any effect on the economy, certainly not large enough to affect midterm election results. And that, at least, is something in the economic realm -- it's even more of a stretch that blocking, say, judicial nominations could matter electorally. Nor is there any obvious electoral benefit to blocking most legislation.
What seems to have happened, I think, is that Republicans believed that their rejectionist strategy in 1993-1994 was responsible for their 1994 landslide, and from that the expectation that Republicans should oppose everything in as strong a way as possible became accepted wisdom in conservative circles, which in turn made it very difficult for Republican elected officials to buck the tide, even if they otherwise might want to. And, of course, the subsequent drop in Barack Obama's approval ratings in spring 2009 just seemed to confirm they were on the right track (even if in fact that drop was a consequence mainly of the economy, not of GOP actions).
Of course, on many issues opposition to a liberal Democratic president hardly needs any explanation. But I do think that Yglesias and others are correct that opposition could have taken other forms, and could have included far more accommodation -- which would have allowed Republicans to achieve more of their policy goals. Why they didn't, I think, is best explained by the combination of electoral incentives and what I think virtually all Republicans and conservatives see as the lessons of 1993-1994 -- lessons which, assuming that November goes as expected, they'll certainly carry forward the next time they perceive themselves in a similar situation.