Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Partisan Domestic Policy Gap

I really like this Matt Yglesias post in which he points out that George W. Bush's success with Congress is mostly a myth believed in by liberals. I'd add a couple of things. One is that the Republican House under Tom DeLay was, by all accounts, highly efficient in passing things that DeLay wanted to pass, which was an asset to Bush that he didn't long as he was doing things that DeLay wanted.

The second thing is that Yglesias accounts for some different outcomes by referring to differences in party discipline in the out-party: Bush was able to get cooperation from Ted Kennedy and Max Baucus, while Obama has thoroughly failed to get cooperation from Republicans; to the extent he succeeded, it was by compromising proposals to secure votes of the moderate fringe (Snowe, Collins, Brown), not by getting the active support of any mainstream Republicans.

I think that's true, but I don't especially think that it's interesting to think about why that is. I think the story that best explains it is about one perhaps asymmetry between the parties: Democrats are simply far more interested in policy, certainly in domestic policy (not the economy, but the rest of domestic policy), than are most Republicans. Ted Kennedy and George Miller were willing to cut a deal with George W. Bush because they were really, really interested in education. What, exactly, is Chuck Grassley really, really, interested in? I have no idea. Jon Kyl? No idea. I don't think there's a gap on foreign policy, at any rate not traditionally, there are some Republicans who have a strong domestic agenda, but I do believe there's a fairly big gap between the parties on it.

Of course, Republicans do care a lot about certain tax cuts, and Barack Obama was able to use that to cut a deal on taxes late last year. But what's the GOP agenda on health care? Education? Climate? There just isn't much of one -- either Republicans don't believe those things are problems, or they don't think that government can do anything. That's certainly a legitimate position (don't like it? Elect the other party!). But it makes it a lot easier for Republicans to maintain party discipline, and a lot harder for Obama or any Democratic president to cut deals.


  1. Take the reverse side, though: negative control.

    Bush's veto threats were uncommonly successful. He issued 140 before one was even tested. Now, the question is why, and I think DeLay is a big part of that. A lot of his veto threats were heeded not by "Congress" but by the leadership, who killed a lot of bills behind the scenes that actually had a real shot at majority support.

    So, I actually don't think that it's a liberal myth, exactly. It's just a mis-targeted myth. It's not that Bush was fantastically influential in Congress; it's that there was a high degree of ideological congruity between him and congressional Republicans, and those Republicans ran Congress with nearly an iron fist.

    The other part of the story is feckless Senate Democrats unwilling to filibuster Republican/Bush agenda items.

    But, it's mostly just a story of conditional party government, with presidential congruity thrown into the mix.

  2. Democrats are simply far more interested in policy...


    I think what you mean to say is that they're interested in SPENDING, like their R compadres were, which is the grease that got that legislation through, as we should all know.

    Bush jacked spending from less than 18% of GDP when he got in, to about 21% of GDP. That's a lot of "policy", eh? Poor Billy Jeff musta been jealous, watching all that spending go down, after he got poor mouthed by Gingrich and the frothing '94 mob!

    The myth that is described in the above is that Bush the W was anything like a conservative. I can almost see the Left gettin' jealous... this "conservative" ramming spending through the roof. And "The Hammer" doing the ramming.

    It's sorta fitting that Pelosi grabbed the hammer and did pretty much the same thing, and piled another massive dollop of spending on top of that previous dollop... pushing us up to 25% of GDP spending or so.

    But there ain't nothin' new under the sun. If you spend cash, you'll find the votes. There ain't no special political magic anywhere here... and there ain't no need for "political science" to describe what's occurred over the years. ;-)

  3. Well, until the Tea Party showed up, that is.

  4. This is one of the best posts I've read in a long time, Jonathan - thank you. Although these are different times from when Ted and George could agree to disagree, the overall premise that Democrats actually favor and care about policy, while Republicans simply don't, is so true, but never discussed. 'Repeal and Replace' anyone?

  5. Do you think that the relative ideological homogeneity of republicans, and their steady march to the right, might be a contributing factor as well? I was looking at the NOMINATE scores the other day and the mean Republican numbers have shifted pretty dramatically over the last 10 years. The Republican mean in the last congress was the most extreme of any major party in congress since the civil war, and by a substantial margin.

  6. I think this policy-consideration gap also helps explain your post from yesterday, Jonathan, on what was up with Perry's "Fed Up" book. The reason a major GOP politician can write such a deeply radical book and yet remain a frontrunner for the nomination, and not at all be ostracized by the national press or the national business community, is because Perry can count on the electorate who is attracted to the GOP to be either a) a person not really interested in any significant details of domestic policy or b) a member of the far right who's actively turned on by Perry's explicit, radical anti-federalism.

    The same calculation wouldn't at all work for a Democratic primary contestant -- not simply because that contestant has to deal with a less homogenous electorate open to considering a Democrat, but also because that electorate is significantly more interested in the plausibility and wisdom of specific policy proposals. No Democratic candidate could get away with having ever written anything as radical as Perry's book.

  7. Sorry, but the above posts are simply a blindness to what's occurred historically.

    And I'm saying this to help you lefties, please believe me. You're blind to historical reality. Great to be partisan, great to favor what you favor... but you have to be cognizant of fundamental realities in the process.

    And a 40% real increase in federal spending in just 11 years is nothing like "conservative". It isn't even close. Not alike. Dissimilar. Add adjectives as necessary.

    And if your comments are not aligned with that fundamental historical reality... unfalsiable reality... then they must be adjudged as blinkered.

  8. ". . . either Republicans don't believe those things are problems, or they don't think that government can do anything."

    Here one way to look at it. Two of the principal tenets of the GOP are: a) That government governs best that governs least; and b) Society is better off when each individual looks out for his own interests. So what happens when people with these beliefs find themselves in control of government. You get up in the morning and it only takes so long to see that the government isn't doing anything and then you have the rest of the day to look out for your own interests. The result: Tom DeLay's Congress: slashed federal programs; slashed, unfunded, or neutralized regulators; and skyrocketing earmarks for the constituents back home.

  9. Matt Yglesias' commenters pointed out how many policies passed under Bush's first term that M.Y. neglected to mention because they didn't support his thesis. Not to mention the vote for two wars. Everyone wants to believe what they believe is correct, not only liberals.

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