Saturday, March 20, 2010

Backing Down

Reports now say that the Dems are surrendering on the self-executing rule; they'll have a straight vote on the Senate bill.

I'm generally reluctant to generalize about differences between the parties, but I guess I'll ask for a similar example from the era in which the Republicans were in charge.  Essentially, the Democrats thought of a clever procedural dodge, the other side attacked it, and then Democrats and liberal activists basically failed to go along with the Democratic leadership.  As I read the blogs, pretty much all liberal blogs (and, for what its worth, the political scientists who weighed in) pointed out that the Republicans were being massively hypocritical, and that there was nothing really improper or certainly illegal about the maneuver, but that it was (at least) bad politics.  And, as a result, the leadership withdrew the idea.  For a summary of blogger views, and the best case for the self-executing rule gambit I've seen, see Andrew Sprung.

Now, the first part -- one party decides to use a clever procedure, the other party attacks -- that happens on both sides, and as far as I can tell more or less equally.  But I can't think of an example from 1995-2006 in which Fox News or conservative talk show hosts criticized Tom DeLay or Trent Lott or whoever over a procedural matter.  As far as I remember, any time the Democrats complained about procedure, conservatives immediately took sides with their team.  Am I forgetting something?   Conservative readers -- let me know if I'm wrong here.

Furthermore, I think it's almost certainly true that if Tom DeLay were faced with this situation, he would never have backed down.  He certainly would not back down because editorial boards or David Broder or Mann and Ornstein thought his procedures were a bad idea.  On the other hand, Tom DeLay is currently appearing on reality TV shows, while Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House.  In other words, it's not clear that bullying through no matter what is always a winning strategy, and having supporters who are willing to call you on it when you make a bad choice, instead of instinctively rallying around, has some advantages.


  1. The symmetry doesn't hold because the Republican party depends far more than the Democratic party upon voters who are fundamentally unreconciled to the status quo ('radical' would be, I submit, a good word for such people at either margin of the ideological spectrum, but I won't insist upon it). Conversely, elected Democrats are more dependent upon centrists and casual participants, both of which are more likely to find process-oriented criticisms relatively more compelling, and ideological or partisan ones less so.

  2. Do we know for sure why they're dropping the self-executing rule? Granted, if in doubt, it's usually best to assume that congressional Dems are backing down or giving in to pressure rather than doing something politically savvy. But might it be that it's dawning on them that it's good, possibly great, politics to be able to say to voters this fall, "I stood with you against the insurance companies, and now you'll never be arbitrarily denied health care again"? And: "The Republicans unanimously tried to stop us, and are promising if they win to put the insurance companies back in charge"? These seem like terrific attack lines to me, and they're strengthened if Democrats have declared themselves as clearly as possible in favor of HCR.

  3. Jonathan, let's not beat around the bush. The Republican Party is the Party of macho swagger. It may be impolite to say so but we all know it is true.

    Republicans see weakness in listening to critics, and more weakness in backing down.

    As you note it doesn't always work. Tom Delay's career is over, as is George W Bush's. The Cheneys get air time but are not respected. Rush Limbaugh has good ratings but is a buffoon to half the nation.

    Still. it works well enough so that in a two-party political system like ours it works for each of the two brands.

    Republicans take orders and follow the leader more than do Democrats. They get discipline (filibuster everything!) but they also followed GWB off of a cliff.

    The Democrats give up some efficiency, but they are there to turn to when the nation is in the mood for a more nuanced approach.

  4. It seems to me like Speaker's careers end essentially at random. I don't know if you'll be able to say that about Pelosi this time next year.


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