Monday, April 8, 2013

Elsewhere: Broken GOP, More

My weekend column over at Salon was my most complete piece on the broken GOP to date. I sort of think I could go longer still, though.

At PP today, I wrote about the latest Harry Reid threat of Senate reform. From what I saw in comments, I annoyed everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike. Pretty much what I expected.

And at Greg's place, I talked automatic voter registration, and also posted on ENDA.


  1. Here's a fourth reason why the Republican Party is hopelessly dysfunctional: their most important legislative priority (budgetary solvency from spending restraint) is driven by change that is toxic to the membership personally (entitlement or defense reform).

    When the outcome you most desire is fueled by inputs you most revile, what do you do? Obstruct obstruct obstruct until your frustrated adversary gift-wraps (owns) your desired outcome for you.

    Which may explain the Obama budget so repulsive to progressives. I guess you could argue that Obama should keep fighting that machine, but to be honest, that's a bit like keeping banging your head against the wall.

    It doesn't really matter how much you're angry at Obama for that budget; Stephanie Cutter is still gonna win the next presidential election, and the GOP will keep the House. I give Obama a lot of credit for that budget, actually.

    We need to move on.

    1. Errr, who in the blazes is Stephanie Cutter?

    2. Oh, Obama's campaign hatchet woman. Got it. I don't know if that is nearly as likely as the GOP keeping the House in 2016. Granted, at the moment as you say this is all sound and fury signifying not very much. Obama will propose, the GOP will refuse to dispose, progressives will fume, but nothing will happen (and as Ezra Klein has pointed out, that in some ways is a very good outcome for progressives as it makes the President look reasonable, the GOP look unreasonable, and maximizes Democratic political chances and thus their own long-term interests). However, should the economy turn bad then the GOP will win the Presidency and progressives will, quite rightly, come down on Obama like a ton of bricks for legitimizing GOP budget cutting rhetoric, or more specifically, they will, quite rightly, point out that it is folly to reward people for behaving badly, whatever your pragmatic reason for doing so. It won't make any difference with regard to what Republicans do or don't do, however it could make a very big difference in the internal dynamics of the Democratic party.

      Now, you might say that is short sighted, progressives want Obama to beat his head against the wall, need to move on, etc. They aren't going to see it that way. Think what happened to Compassionate Conservatism among the GOP in the wake of GWB's loss, even though, arguably, compassionate conservatism had nothing to do with it. Should the GOP win, then enact much of their program proclaiming that, after all, even Obama agreed with it, then Blue Dogs are likely to be an even rarer type of Democrat than they are already, which is probably not a good thing for anyone.

      Which brings us to JB's point that it really is hard to know what the devil Obama is thinking. The GOP will not accept his budget, the progressives will be enraged, the other Democrats will by lukewarm, the public will be indifferent, the deficit scolds may or may not come to his side (probably not over the long term) and even if they do they are as powerless a bunch of bloviators as you are ever going to meet. I guess he may think the GOP might go for it, thus defusing the budget wars, but that seems, well, for lack of a better word, stupid. Sigh. Maybe it's time to accept what many of his detractors have been saying. When it comes to practical politics, the man ain't all that smart.

    3. Obama's playing 11 dimensional chess. Haven't you heard?

    4. That may be my problem. Anything over nine dimensions and I get lost, :-).

      I guess the best that can be said for his strategy is that he's playing for time -- which might actually be a very good idea, overall. Back during the early years of the recently departed Maggie Thatcher, one of her Ministers was commenting on the state of the Labour Party, at that time still unreformed. He said "Labour will win an election one day. Our job is to hang on until they become sane."

      Perhaps the best thing to do is to hang on until the GOP becomes sane. Political scientists tell us that the longer a party is out of power the more moderate its Presidential nominees become, although whether that still holds or not, who knows? In American history the Dems hung on from 1932 while the GOP progressed from Hoover to Landon to Wilkie to Dewey and finally to Eisenhower. What the GOP needs is, probably, a new Eisenhower. That is, someone popular enough to win, wise enough and responsible enough to govern well, and strong enough of mind and will to reform his party and bring it into accord with the American mainstream. But that can take a long time. It took the GOP 24 years to find Eisenhower, and even he was not completely successful in exorcizing the demons -- the party nominated Goldwater in 1964 after all.

      Can the Dems hang on long enough? I used to think, given a large amount of luck, that they might be able to. After this past few days, however, I am rather doubtful.

    5. @Anastasios, what in the last few days has caused your doubts about the Dems holding on? Is it something subtle that I missed?

    6. MP,

      As JB said in his post about Obama's budget, it seems that he and his people are giving in to wishful thinking on some pretty important matters. That is bad for policy, and could be disastrous for politics. It is the mistake of both Jimmy Carter and GW Bush, and given the situation with the GOP it is a mistake that the Dems cannot afford. Once the GOP becomes sane there will be time to indulge pleasant dreams of harmony and grand bargains.

    7. Several thoughts:

      First, I mentioned that Krugman was on NPR the other day, where he acknowledged that US budgetary pressures would require significant entitlement reform (probably Medicare) 10 years hence. Krugman's current deficit support is based on the theory that stimulus is more important now, with drastic reform coming...soon.

      As an aside, imo there are at least two significant problems with Krugman's view: first, that the animal spirits supposed to respond positively to stimulus (i.e. hire) would do so in this environment, and second, whether painful entitlement reform would be any easier 10 years hence with the same clown show in Congress, when the hour is truly late. If you can satisfy those assumptions (and a few others), the low prevailing interest rates do, it seems to me, support Krugman's theory, in its limited application.

      I bring this up as a retort of sorts to that Cheneyesque fantasy infecting the professional left that deficits, inherently, don't matter. No one believes that, it is the left-wing equivalent of the right-wing fantasy about balanced budgets. Not only does no one believe that, but in fact everyone knows the hour is getting late for the alarming total US debt. Including Krugman.

      So Obama must too. What to do? Here I don't think its helpful to transfer your unhappiness with the Congressional GOP into a blanket statement of insanity; how about a little Sun-Tzu instead? What would you do if you were them? You want serious spending reform, in areas dear to your constituents, so you want your enemy to be responsible.

      Is there a level of democratic ownership that gives the GOP enough cover to sign off? Well...who knows. In theory (again, Sun Tzu theory, not "those guys upset me so they must be insane" theory), there is such a level. Playing his 11-dimensional chess, Obama is banking on it.

      And he has to. He has no choice but to bet on that! The hour, after all, is getting late, and the time to wait in this game of chicken is getting short. Just ask Krugman! Indeed, Obama has probably accurately guessed that the cover needed by the Republicans is significant, and he has probably further guessed that the outraged progressives will have short memories, as they always do.

      Maybe, you know, maybe Obama is really an incredibly honorable statesman at an incredibly critical time of the country. I may not have this quite right, but even if its close, that's not bad for all the pejorative memes thrown his way by the feverish right.

    8. One other, Sun-Tzu, observation: if the conservative caucus favors spending reform that damages critical constituents, not only must they get the other side to own such reform, but they also ideally would be seen to be fighting it tooth and nail.

      So left-leaning pundit Jonathan Bernstein publishes a column lamenting that the right is "crazy" in its obfuscation tactics? Sure is! Print that bad boy out and make sure it gets sent along to the AARP and Institute for Advanced Study of Defense Policy. What better evidence can be found about how hard the congressional GOP *fought* (cough, cough) for their constituents?

      Perhaps Obama gets all of this. Should he fight harder? Why? So the ship can sink?

    9. CSH,

      Sure, maybe all that is the case. I will even go farther and say that if you got John Boehner alone and he trusted you he might well say something like "Look, we need a bargain. But it's my job if I openly admit that." Okay, fine. But that twenty-five cents, as the saying goes...

      I think the trap he is in is worse than that you make out. Sure, he wants spending reform in areas that will enrage his constituents. He wants Obama to own it. The problem is, to get that spending reform he will have to accept tax increases, also anathema to most of his constituents. So how is he going to sell such a bargain? "I had to let the meanie Democrats cut your Medicare in exchange for the meanie Democrats raising your taxes?" It isn't that
      Boehner wants a grand bargain and needs to maneuver to get it. It's that he recognizes the need for a grand bargain but also sees that any way you cut it everything involved in such a bargain will enrage the GOP base, including the House members he needs to keep his job. It isn't that he is in a bad situation and he needs Obama to "take one for the team" so he can claim a win, it's that he's in a situation where there is simply no way for him to win short of losing (i.e. having the GOP lose the House so Pelosi can impose the bargain and he can be a joyous martyr).

      Sometimes the permutations of nine-dimensional chess just come down to structural paralysis. And sometimes Machiavellian maneuvering just comes down to people being stupid as sticks. After all, we've had one round of maneuvering already. Obama thought that the sequester would never happen because the GOP hawks would be able to sell the necessity of tax increases for the preservation of the Defense budget. Many in the GOP probably wanted to do that. But they simply don't have room to maneuver. Short of complete surrender by the Dems, which is to say the Dems accepting large parts of the Ryan budget with nothing in return, there is no outcome that Boehner and his supporters can presently sell to his right wing as acceptable.

      I don't have as much worry over the deficit as you. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Or maybe it's just my personal perspective that's skewed, as I'm childless and rapidly ageing and therefore have little incentive to worry very much about events more than a couple of decades down the road. However, if you really do think the deficit is a terrible danger to the country, you might want to consider becoming politically active as of yesterday, because it's going to take a lot of heavy lifting and I don't have much confidence that our present political order is up to it.

    10. But Anastasios, why does Boehner, in theory, have to accept tax increases? Obama drew a line in the sand at $250 K back to pre-GWB levels, and settled for $400 K. The difference ain't a lot of revenue. True, that's a line in sand, but there's nothing that says this (inherently difficult) task has to be achieved on the revenue side, as opposed to the spending side.

      Next, why do we think that Boehner and Obama haven't already had this conversation, or at least the outlines of it, including what it would take for Boehner to get out of his box? Wait, I know, cause we read a lot of stuff on the tubes that says that. could. never. happen.

      I hereby propose a corollary to the Anastasios Theory that many people are not as smart as they'd have you believe: professionals, when they share a common objective (in this case, avoiding armageddon) will act with far more comity than they'd ever let on.

      So who knows to what extent Boehner and Obama have discussed the parameters of how this can be accomplished. However much they've talked about this specifically, neither side would let on, as either would take immense heat from their constituents. I would hazard a guess the answer is not, as the partisan tubes would have you believe, "zero".

      And finally, deficits are not, in the abstract, a bad thing. To Dylan Matthews' point, any deficit that is below GDP growth rates is probably alright, assuming existing interest payments aren't unbearable. Krugman's theory for stimulus is also a pretty good one - well, in theory - if certain critical assumptions hold (that imo are fairly dubious). Like everything, budgetary/fiscal policy totally depends.

      Which is terribly unsatisfying in this environment, no?

    11. CSH,

      Oh, I think a deal can be achieved without revenue, sure. It would be basically along the lines that JB has talked about -- no new taxes, but cuts that are either to things Dems want to cut anyway (defense, farm subsidies) and/or are fake cuts that can easily be made to vanish by executive sleight-of-hand.

      The thing is such a deal would not have true Chained CPI (that is, it might have something called that but with so many loopholes and reservations as to make it meaningless) or changes in SS or Medicare ages. It might include some means testing at the very high end. Sure, that would allow the GOP to claim a victory in theory and the Dems to claim a victory in substance, particularly if they modified the sequester from real cuts to mostly fake cuts.

      Of course such a deal would not constitute real entitlement reform or a grand bargain. And it would not do very much for the deficit in the near years (maybe the out years if the economy improves). But, if one is just looking for a bipartisan deficit deal that someone like Steny Hoyer would accept and that Boehner can get through the House by claiming a victory, sure that can be done.

  2. The CBC is actually part of the Dem party, Prof. Bernstein, which means that the Congressional Dems are corrupt at the root. Your goo-goo fantasizing at Salon is therefore just the usual partisan gas-bagging.

  3. It seems that awful governance is the norm worldwide. Most of Europe looks worse than the US, so why would one believe that there even is a real fix (such as the Repubs stopping their mean old ways?)

    Progressives have a death-grip on power so we should expect awful governance to continue ... probably indefinitely.

  4. Message to GOP...stop regulating social policy and start regulating things that actually affect people on the whole.

  5. I'm probably not the only person who would buy a Jonathan Bernstein book about GOP disfunction.

  6. I enjoyed the fuller exposition of the case that the GOP is "broken"/dysfunctional, not simply increasingly conservative/extreme. Those are 3 very good reasons: 1) the conservative marketplace's incentives, 2) primary incentives, and 3) a rancid political culture evolved from flawed winners.

    In the interests of getting some discussion going, #2 strikes me as perhaps too nearly an argument for the case you're rebutting, since it's not clear the primaries working in some surprisingly new way; they're working as they should given a party electorate that has grown increasingly conservative.

    #3 strikes me as important because not just politicians, but also party actors and engaged partisans learned the wrong lessons in how to think about politics in a Madisonian democratic system (I try to think within your terms here).

    #1 seems even more crucial. The dynamics of cultural panic, anti-intellectualism, vitriol, conspiracy, and no-hold-bar-ism that have always characterized far-right politics (as Rick Perlstein has shown for example) have gone from marginal to mainstream. And it's not so much that far-right voters have embraced this (a perennial), as that 'moderate' Republicans and their elite representatives have remained indifferent to it, semi-accepting, or cravenly opportunistic; whereas in the past, I'd argue that more of them were responsible in the sense of patrolling the borders of electability and maintaining a coherence between rhetoric and policy. Those 'moderate' groups now seem to quite like the margin of play and opportunities that are offered by on-the-fly disassociating rhetoric from policy. They seem to like the game.


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