Friday, January 18, 2013

What Kind of Crazy Are the GOP?

Dan Drezner suspects "large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality." My verdict: not quite correct. But not all that wrong, either.

He has two counts against them, so I'll take them one at a time. The first is that now, after Chuck Schumer has declared he'll vote for Chuck Hagel, a GOP-aligned group is organizing to raise money to take Schumer on. Drezner suggests that Hagel's nomination is a sure thing by now, and so "there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now."

Is that correct? Let's say Schumer's endorsement means that Hagel has won the support of mainstream Democrats. That certainly gives him the 50 votes he'll need in the Senate for confirmation, with Joe Biden breaking a tie; he could afford to lose five Democrats with tough re-election fights as well as all the Republicans.

Except...that doesn't get you to cloture; for that, he'll need all those marginal Democrats, plus five Republicans. Or he'll need Republicans to allow a simple majority confirmation vote without a filibuster. I'm pretty skeptical of these kinds of lobbying campaigns in the first place, but the tactic of elevating this fight doesn't seem irrational at all to me if the goal is pressuring Republicans to filibuster, and marginal Democrats to bail.

That's one way to look at it. Another way is that it's just the donors who are...well, not crazy, but easily duped. Suppose we have a group of wealthy donors who trust GOP elites, but the GOP elites are taking advantage of that trust to funnel lots of money into their operations, much of which winds up in their pockets. So the GOP operatives basically have to rile up the donors periodically, get their cash, turn it into very visible campaigns, and pocket the fees. That's not a breakdown in instrumental rationality; it's a case of party dysfunction, in which the results of everyone following the incentives the system gives them yields results which undermine the party as a whole.

Okay, on to the second one: House Republicans, getting battered by everyone for hostage-taking on the debt limit, appear to be retreating to a plan of passing a short term extension, something like three months. Drezner: "All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling.  Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?"

Is that the plan, however? More likely, Republicans intend to do what they did with the fiscal cliff: bring it to the floor, but make Democrats supply the votes. They even might go back to what they thought about doing on the cliff vote and split their votes between "no" and "present" so that Democrats have to all vote "yes." And then repeat it and repeat it.

Now, just as with the public campaign against Hagel, there's probably not much difference between attacking a Member of Congress for voting to raise the debt limit vs. voting to raise the debt limit six times! But I'm not sure that's grounds for questioning their ability to reason.

So I'm not fully convinced by either of Drezner's examples. And yet...I'm not totally dismissing it, either. The Bachmann/Gohmert wing of the GOP conference may really be incapable of adding 2 and 2 together. Sticking to these examples...I'm really not sure what a successful filibuster and defeat of Chuck Hagel gets them in terms of policy; the Hagel they are attacking is at least 75% fictional, after all. So at the very least Drezner's point may hold for the donors. On the debt limit: it's not really clear what exactly House Republicans are going to settle on or why, but there do seem to be a lot of Members who believe that holding their breath until they (and the nation) turn blue is a sure-win strategy.

Do I have a larger point? Sure. I'm inclined to think that only a small group, if that, of Republican politicians or other party actors are really nuts in the way that Drezner suggests...but that the party as a whole may have wound up as severely dysfunctional, perhaps in part from incentives introduced by the crazies.

16 comments:

  1. Seems to me that Drezner is way overreading the three-month proposal. The source he quotes says it's coming from the House leadership, which at the moment has the task of trying to get the House GOP rank and file to agree to lift the debt ceiling. So they're trying to sell strategic defeat on that issue as a mere tactical delay, is my guess. It's not like they have some plan to actually continue provoking a new losing confrontation every three months. In that sense, they're not being crazy. They are, however, dealing with people who (crazily) think that this debt-ceiling thing can still work, and who may be dumb enough to be persuaded that there's a still a big victory waiting for them just around the corner.

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  2. I'd also point out that the GOP has yet to even announce what specific cuts they even want in exchange for raising the debt limit. They keep throwing out big numbers but have yet to announce specifically what they want, so if if Obama did decide to cave he couldn't even agree to their demands, because they have yet to formalize what those demands are outsize of vague platitudes about "controlling spending" and the occasional big number. Which is both an example of political dysfunction (we don't even know what we want) and the policy gap that JB talked about at Plumline yesterday.

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    1. Well looks like the GOP caved, so I guess they aren't all that crazy. Also a potential catch of the day to Jonathan Chait for pointing out that one of the GOP's new main qualifiers (not letting members of either body get paid if their isn't a budget agreement) for raising the debt ceiling is blatantly unconstitutional: "Also, the part about making Congress go without pay turns out to violate the Constitution (“No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened”)."

      http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/debt-ceiling-hostage-crisis-over.html

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    2. Kudos to Chait on that. Hadn't even thought about it violating our most recent amendment!

      I suspect the Texas Board of Ed is going to write Jefferson out of the history books entirely! (as this amendment was actually his idea, and was originally part of the Bill of Rights, just one that didn't get passed for 200 years!)

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  3. if Obama did decide to cave he couldn't even agree to their demands

    I don' think that is quite true: What they are demanding is precisely that Obama specify cuts, so he can take the blame for them.

    In the bigger picture, I think most of the GOP is dysfunctional rather than outright crazy. After all, for most GOP House members the biggest threat is getting primaried from the right, not losing a general election.

    So from their perspective, endless losing debt limit battles do no harm, so long as they themselves get to vote on the side of the Lord (i.e., against raising the limit). Even if the GOP's unpopularity rose to the point where the Dems win the House, most individual GOP members would still have their own seats.

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    1. But it begins to look more complicated once you realize that most of the GOP party administrators and politicians have worked hand-in-glove with irresponsible media entertainers to rouse and mold a crazy party base, providing little concerted pushback or course-correction. That's where their lack of instrumental rationality comes in.

      In contrast, consider how much energy Democratic party actors devote to shaping and educating opinion among left-of-center constituencies toward mainstream and reasonable modes of thinking and assessing possibilities.

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    2. Democrats, by and large, take governing seriously. Republicans, not so much. Ayn Randism has taken so much hold that for many GOP elite types, a (high paying!) gig on Fox may well look like a promotion. So on a personal level, who has any real interest in pushing back against the crazy? The incentives, including money, all support embracing it.

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  4. Okay, but the Democrats have said that they won't vote for anything but a clean debt limit. So Pelosi will ensure that no Democrats vote for this bill. So if only 12 Republicans opt out, Boehner can't even do this. I'm imagining the rational Republicans thinking to themselves, "And then we do this again in April?" I don't think Boehner will get it done.

    It would work great if they could get the Democrats to bite. I think that their margin is too thin, and their crazy is to great, to do this.

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    1. I take Pelosi's talk to be pure bluster.

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    2. Because she secretly admires Boehner and wishes she could help him and his caucus save face?

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    3. Because she doesn't have that much control.

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  5. I'm a little surprised by the misses in the analysis on the debt ceiling punt. It's a three month delay so the GOP can try to get their act together. They winged it on the fiscal cliff, and that was a disaster for them, so for this confrontation they're going to give themselves a few months prep time.

    They are going to be damn busy because their previous plan (demand Obama name his cuts) isn't going to work. At least they figured that out.

    I don't know what their new plan will be, but it probably won't be as lame. Well, maybe it will be. I won't be making any bets on it being noticeably better, but I'll be hoping for it.

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    1. I would add that by pushing the debt ceiling back by three months, they can hold that threat in reserve while they see how the bargaining (or threatening) over the next budget extension goes. That may be how Boehner got the Tea Partyers to agree to drop the debt ceiling issue for now. If so, then it is an example of instrumental rationality.

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    3. (Cleaned up version with fewer mistakes.)

      Yes, the delay is a sign of rationality, but I'm not sure how much that bit of rationality has matured.

      Let's use a chess analogy: Are they starting to think one move ahead, or two, or more? With the fiscal cliff and the SS tax cut extension last year, the GOP pretty much got to the day of the vote before they realized their strategy wasn't working. So this awareness on the debt ceiling issue an improvement.

      However, is their new strategy to give Obama 3 months to set out his budget and name cuts? What's their plan if they hate Obama's budget? (Haha, IF they hate Obama's budget.)

      It's not at all clear that they have a plan for that extremely likely contingency. As I said, I hope they have a new plan that's better and at least one move deeper than the old plan.

      There's one reason to think that they will have a better plan--they'll look like real idiots if they wasted the entire three months to be back at the same point.

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  6. On the Drezner comments about Hagel, I think he underestimates the level of anger among Likudniks and other conservative, pro-Israeli Jews about Hagel's comments that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol hill]" and that "I'm an American Senator, not an Israeli Senator." While Romney won only 30% of the Jewish vote last November, according to exit polls, Likudnik Jewish Republicans, foremost among them Sheldon Adelson, are very important parts of the Republican fund-raising establishment, and are furiously opposed to the Hagel nomination. To allow a man who made such comments about AIPAC and Israel to become Secretary of Defense without putting up a fight would seriously alienate this group from the Republican Party. Republicans made a little progress in 2012 in converting some of the strongest supporters of Israel among the Jewish community to vote against Obama, who won Jews by only 69-30% after winning them by 78-22% in 2008, and hope to continue this progress by their campaign against Hagel. So it certainly makes sense to utilize this opening Obama has given Republicans to make further inroads into the Jewish community by strongly opposing Hagel's confirmation.

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