Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Constitution Isn't Making the GOP Crazy

Matt Yglesias believes that a big part of the problem with the GOP is the American system of separated institutions sharing powers:
Something that I think is worth noting about this is that, of course, Thatcher was operating in a system that put very few procedural constraints on the Tory majority in parliament. On the one hand, that allowed her to implement dramatic changes in U.K. public policy. But on the other hand, it meant that there was no tactical advantage to be gained by adopting public negotiating positions at odds with her real policy agenda. A British politician who believes that reducing high-end income taxes and replacing the lost revenue with regression consumption taxes is a good idea has no good options other than stating that this is the case and then doing it. An American politician with identical beliefs might nonetheless believe that the best strategy is to profess opposition to all forms of revenue and profess willingness to destroy the global economy in fanatical pursuit of that goal and then only very reluctantly accept the Thatcherite “compromise” once rival politicians are willing to put it on the table.
His example, however, I think undermines his point. He notes that last time the GOP had control of both Congress and the presidency, instead of eliminating Medicare they actually added to it, and substantially. Fair enough! But it's awful hard to look at the first six Bush years as an example of a party acting responsibly in office because everyone knew they would be accountable. The Bush/DeLay Republicans cut high-end tax rates, but did they replace the lost revenue with regressive consumption taxes? Hardly. Did they pay for the expansion of Medicare? Certainly not.

Backing up a bit...the problem with Yglesias's thesis is that it depends on an electorate that has strong opinions on policy choices and would punish politicians that would deviate from them. If such an electorate existed, then he'd be correct. But it doesn't. Ideological voters are going to stick with their party in general elections regardless, while swing voters are going to react (on the whole) to economic and other big-picture results, not single policies.

Now, at the extremes, sure, Yglesias has a point. If President Bachmann, Speaker Paul, and Majority Leader Paul in 2013 immediately eliminate Medicare and Social Security, yes, that would almost certainly drive their approval ratings down to single digits. But note that even in the current situation, with no clear responsibility, none of them are calling for anything that dramatic. And at the level they're actually operating at, Republicans can afford to call for the things they're calling for because they just aren't voting issues for very many people.

It is true that House Republicans can risk crashing the economy through a debt limit crisis, or by fighting for an economy-crippling austerity program, secure in the knowledge that Obama would probably pay the price is the economy tanks. But I think the evidence is strong that what's driving Republicans on these policies is that they either truly believe in them (and don't forget, the Conservative Party in Britain is pursuing austerity), or that they are frightened of primary voters and organized groups within the party who really believe in them. In other words, I strongly suspect that President Bachmann, Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader Paul might well be implementing the same policies they're advocating today. And Speaker Boehner believes that he has to advocate the policies that Bachmann and the others advocate, because he believes (and rightly so) that if not, he'll be bounced.

If the GOP really has gone off the rails -- and I think it has -- the place to look for explanation is the rewards and incentives within the party, not the US Constitutional system.


  1. I agree with your analysis on why the GOP has gone off the rails. Matt's post was just advancing is fantasy of turning the United States into a parliamentary republic, something that is highly unlikely. The problem is that GOP that is off the rails is GOP that can and will cause immmense suffering and pain to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people inside and outside the United States. There needs to be something to get the GOP on the rails again and this needs to be implemented sooner rather than latter.

  2. Off the rails? As you point out, the Lib-Con coalition in Britain is pursuing austerity right now. If that's insanity, then I hope Obama follows their lead. In fact, he can do them one better by bringing home the troops immediately. Our debt-to-GDP ratio falls between Portugal and Greece right now -- it's time to get serious about this.

    If we had the British Parliamentary system, it's possible that the lack of primaries would have forced the tea party to become an actual party... leading to an unstable GOP-Tea Party coalition.

  3. Was thinking a bit about the "GOP off the rails" meme with the two excellent July 4th threads, the political heroes one and the earlier one discussing private v. public happiness.

    I voted for Ben Franklin in the political heroes one, as his life is the archetypal one for conservatives, IMO. Following Professor Bernstein's construct of public v. private happiness, it is fair for a liberal to push back on an idealization of Franklin by noting that not everyone can have the discipline he did (and if those liberals knew me, perhaps they would point out that I myself lack such discipline), so as a result we need a social contract in addition to individual achievement. All well and good in a functioning American polity.

    Unfortunately, the GOP, the "individual achievement" side of the American balance, is not really a party of Ben Franklins anymore. It has been, IMO, poisoned by the pernicious influence of Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, and the many negative ramifications therein.

    How is John Galt not like Ben Franklin? Franklin dedictated thousands of hours to many noble intellectual pursuits; we meet Galt in a cave, having to take Rand's word that he is really smart or something. Why is Galt in that cave? Because little losers were not grateful enough for Galt's intelligence (again, take Rand's word for it, its hardly demonstrated in the novel). WRT Franklin - imagine the hideous conceit of retreating to that cave!

    There once was a small-time self-help guru in NYC who wrote a book that eventually become the third-most read of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Y'all remember Carnegie's insight, right? How to win friends? Its that everyone thinks they are really smart and sympathetic, even if they aren't, so to get along with others you have to treat them as being as intelligent as they think they are, not as stupid as you know them truly to be.

    Therein, IMO, lies the great catastrophic problem with the modern right. When the party of the "private" good reveres John Galt, a fictional character who didn't actually do anything other than run away when not indulged, rather than Ben Franklin, who brought it, every day of his life, in so many ways, then in a Dale Carnegie sense the door is opened for half-baked wannabes to assert their individuality while claiming status they have not earned.

    You know this if you read right-wing blogs, which are permeated with self-professed John or Jane Galts, folks whose lack of excellence would surely make Ben Franklin blush. You know this if you watch the right wing media, where populists like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman, AMAZINGLY, hate accomplished people!

    Thanks for reading this far, I suppose I am mostly preaching to the choir, but this has been a pretty big insight for one disgruntled conservative.


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