Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Electoral Incentives

Ezra Klein has an item this morning referring to comments from Alan Abramowitz at the Monkey Cage, which I discussed earlier.  Abramowitz, remember, points out that evaluations of Congress don't seem to affect Congressional elections, while evaluations of the president do.  Ezra's takeaway from this is frustration:
It's hard to see how you can find much bipartisanship under these circumstances. If the president's success is the best predictor of the minority's defeat, the minority can't let the president succeed. But there's no way to keep the president from succeeding politically while still helping him govern effectively. So they just block both things from happening.
One needs to be careful here.  It's true that evaluations of Congress don't have any noticeable effect on Congressional elections.  But evaluations of one's individual Member of Congress do have such effects. Moreover, individual Members of Congress are hurt in their reelection campaigns if the nation is doing badly (generally measured by economic indicators).

This makes a rejectionist strategy quite risky for incumbents in the minority party; that's why Democrats in 2001-2002 generally didn't use a pure rejectionist strategy while George W. Bush had very high approval ratings, and why traditionally parties have not embraced such strategies.  Parties that oppose popular presidents may be able to benefit even if their own image is damaged -- after all, by definition minority parties are better off if all incumbents suffer.  Individual Members of Congress from those minority parties, however, may find themselves more vulnerable to defeat even if their party overall benefits, and therefore they may choose to accommodate, rather than reject, the president's agenda. 

The story here is that Republicans in 1993-1994 were able to convince incumbents to carry out a rejectionist strategy, and Republicans won in 1994, so Republicans (and many Democrats) are now convinced that rejectionist strategies are obvious choices.  It's not at all clear, however, that Republican strategies in 1993-1994 were responsible for Clinton's low approval ratings or the other causes of the Democrats' 1994 electoral debacle.  And it's not at all clear to me that the Republican strategy is succeeding now.  Barack Obama's approval ratings remain at around 50%, despite historically very high levels of unemployment.  Would he be higher if Republicans had allowed his nominations to clear the Senate?  Somehow, I doubt it.  Higher if health care had passed?  That, I can buy -- but I also think health care is still likely to pass, regardless of Republican actions.  Meanwhile, Republican incumbents are subject to attacks for opposing locally popular projects, and Democrats will be attacking them on obstructing popular legislation.

If the economy stalls and unemployment lags, Republican incumbents will probably win their bet.  But if the economy recovers and Obama enters the fall campaign with health approval ratings, Republican incumbents in marginal districts may find themselves in trouble because they opposed a president their constituents have embraced.

The point is that rejectionist policies are not the automatic winners that Ezra Klein and other liberals -- or that GOP strategists -- have assumed.  Republicans are taking real risks, and it's too early to know whether those risks will pay off or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?