Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Shot With His Own Gun

Jonathan Cohn wonders this morning whether Republicans could be making a big mistake by following the rejectionist model of 1993-1994 rather than trying to cut the best deal. Similarly, Matt Yglesias wondered recently whether Republicans rejectionist strategy on the economy (including blaming Obama for Bush's policies in 2008) isn't apt to be a problem for the GOP once the economy improves.

The problem here, however, is that the Republicans are increasingly playing inside their own little bubble. Remember that very few people vote in primary elections -- and that those who do vote in primary elections tend to be the most rabid and intense partisans. That's true of presidential primaries; it's even more the case for congressional primaries. Normally, those people are also the best informed, but "best informed" for Republicans these days more often than not means that they watch lots and lots of Fox News and listen to lots and lots of talk radio.

On the economy, near as I can tell, what most Republican primary voters will believe is something like this: after a recession in 2001 that was the fault of Bill Clinton and the September 11 terrorist attacks, the economy then boomed thanks to the Bush tax cuts. It faltered because Chris Dodd got a cheap loan and a bunch of poor people who shouldn't have owned houses took advantage of a Clinton program (or Carter program, or someone -- certainly the Dems), and then went into a recession thanks to Obama Bailouts and deficit spending, and it hasn't emerged from that recession yet.

That most people don't think of things quite that way won't matter, because most people don't vote in Republican primaries.

On health care, it's safe to predict (if the bill passes) that even though few provisions will go into effect before the 2010 and 2012 election, Obama and the Democrats will totally own health care, at least for high-information GOP primary voters. We can expect lots of medical horror stories (true ones -- there are always true medical horror stories) that are attributed to Obamacare. On top of that, there will be death panels; not real ones, of course, but newly invented scary future effects of the newly passed bill. Any Republican who cut a deal and voted for that bill will be risking the blame, along with all Democrats, for every medical horror story that happens for the rest of their careers, but especially over the next couple election cycles (I should note that Republicans are hardly alone in that; for the past forty years Democrats have pinned all medical horror stories on reform-blocking GOP candidates. The special genius of the 2010 and 2012 cycles is that the responsibility will flip, at least for GOP primary voters, even though reform won't yet be implemented).

And the worst part is that GOP leaders almost certainly don't control the crazy. Rush, Beck, and the rest of the gang have a major (financial) incentive to play to the most extreme fears of their audience, and it's really not clear what if anything the candidates and elected officials could do to get them to go along with an accommodationist strategy even if that's what they wanted. It's safe to say that no one is going to turn to talk radio to hear how brilliant Olympia Snowe is for getting a slightly-less-bad bill (from a conservative point of view). Not when there are death panels and racial rationing to be bandied about.

That's what Republican candidates are up against. It's hardly surprising that most of them find it safest to stick with rejectionist strategies. But it really isn't a safe path back to a majority, once they enter the wider world of general elections.

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