Sunday, September 27, 2009

Party of Newt

Continuing readers know that I refer to Newt Gingrich as Tom Baxter, Business Visionary, after a character on News Radio who was, it turned out, a total fraud. Newt's on my mind today because of this nice post from John Sides:

You have no idea what you’re asking me to do. It takes me forty-eight hours to get the Republicans to flush the toilet.

Harry Reid, on Sept. 17, 2008, in the meeting where Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke first asked Congressional leaders for “several hundred billion dollars” to buy toxic bank assets.

From James Stewart’s fascinating account in The New Yorker.

John titles his post "Annals of Party Polarization." And fair enough, but I don't think it captures all of what's going on there. After all, Republicans weren't rebelling against Reid; they were refusing to go along with the Republican President of the United States of America, just as Newt's House Republican back-benchers did in 1990 when they opposed a budget deal reached by President George H.W. Bush. There's more to it, then, than just Republicans opposing Democrats.

These episodes, along with the 1995-1996 government shutdown, have a couple of things in common. First, they are episodes in which Newt-inspired Republicans rejected something which everyone believed to be the responsible course of action. And, second, they were total disasters for the Republican party. In all three subsequent presidential elections, the GOP got clobbered, and generally the results on the Congressional side weren't very good, either.

Since the early 1980s, Newt Gingrich and his followers have had one strategy: destroy the establishment in order that Republicans can pick up the pieces. They have consistently acted as if there's no penalty for short-term irresponsible behavior, whether it's impeaching Clinton in 1998 or running up huge deficits in Bush's first term. During eras of unified Democratic government (1993-1994, and the current Congress), that strategy might make sense, although I'm not really convinced (see note below). When the GOP does have some responsibility for governing, I think it's massively counterproductive to act irresponsibly, even if it polls well or registers nicely in focus groups.

This is not to say that Democrats always behave responsibly, but only that they don't appear, as far as I can see, to have a basic strategy that involves indifferent to the effects of their governing choices. Historians will debate whether Clinton was right to care more about deficits than traditional Democratic priorities in 1993, or whether Pelosi, Reid, and nominee Obama were right in fall 2008 to support Bush's bailout plan. My only point is that I can't think of similar actions by the Newt wing of the Republican party -- which, as of now, appears to be the overwhelmingly dominant portion of that party. Well, that's not really my point; my point is that choosing short-term populist boosts over actually governing well has worked really, really badly for the GOP, as can be seen by the long exodus of people such as Bruce Bartlett from loyalty to the party. Well, that, and all those seats in the House, the Senate, and the statehouses now held by Democrats.

Note on 1994: I thin evidence shows that the 1994 electoral debacle for the Democrats was only minimally caused by Dole's filibuster strategy, and not at all by Newt's bomb-throwing (or, for that matter, contract-writing) on the House side. Clinton's poor management of the presidency, especially in 1993 and with regard to the health care bill; the slow jobs recovery from the 1991 recession; and, more than anything, a whole bunch of context stuff about southern realignment were the real big factors in that one.

1 comment:

  1. I meant the title of the post to refer to the "toilet flushing" line not to the Republicans' opposition to the bailout per se. To me, the flushing reference suggests a more chronic state of polarization.


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