Tuesday, May 24, 2011

House Republicans Not Reality-Challenged?

I haven't yet commented on the fascinating reporting by Politico's Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman taking us behind the scenes of the GOP House conference's decision to support Paul Ryan's budget, but it's certainly an important clue to what's happening. Short story for those who haven't read it: many Members had misgivings about passing something that was unpopular and had no chance of being enacted into law, but they went ahead and did it anyway.

The big caveat to keep in mind when reading things like this, to be sure, is that people generally talk for a reason.  Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp looks good from their account, right? Well, sure; it's easy to leak to reporters that you were on the losing but correct side of an internal debate. I'm not saying Camp wasn't; I'm just saying that anything in these sorts of reports should be taken with several grains of salt, waiting for many more accounts before settling on anything, even provisionally, as a full picture of what actually happened.

That said, I see two positive signs for House Republicans in this account. OK, one real one, and one just for fun. The frivolous comment is that it's very good to see that the GOP House conference is apparently relying on real pollsters this time around; in 1995, if I recall correctly, they commissioned Frank Luntz to cook the numbers, yielding a situation in which many Members apparently believed that highly unpopular policies were actually the Will of the People.

The serious positive sign is that Republicans apparently were, and are, aware that their Medicare plan is actually unpopular.

Why is that a positive sign?

This gets back to the old epistemic closure discussion, once again. Recall that Julian Sanchez's famous posts about the conservative feedback loop were concerned with elite, not mass, delusion. In my view, that sort of thing is a serious threat to democracy.

Now, by contrast, I can think of several potentially good reasons for Members of Congress to vote for something despite knowing it's unpopular. They may be more responsive to their strongest supporters than to median voters. They may believe that they have additional knowledge than voters and that what they know suggests that a policy unpopular now may yield popular results by election day. They may be willing to lose their seats over something they believe is morally or ethically required. They may believe (correctly, even) that the policy is overall unpopular but well-liked in their district. I can think of several others; there's nothing, in my view, about democracy that requires the votes of a representative to line up 100% of the time with the majority of her constituents. So when that happens, it may be worth thinking about and examining, but it's not on the surface a sign of dysfunction.

On the other hand, a situation in which party leaders, especially politicians, are structurally incapable of discerning reality -- including what's popular and what's not -- is a pretty serious problem for a democracy. So I'm happy to see any evidence that Republicans may not have that problem.


  1. I think voting on the budget was more political. I was glad to hear that there was apprehension about the plan from GOP members as well, because it shows they know it's not a good one. We don't need to go into what Newt said.

    But the reason why it was political was because as Budget Chairman Ryan wields influence, but now he owes a lot of IOU's to his colleagues.

  2. Assuming the GOP grasps the unpopularity of Ryan's Medicare legislation, is not the Dem's next move to threaten to cave and appeal to voters next year with promises to rescind it? Call their bluff in negotiations and watch them fold?


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