Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Learning" and Rejectionism

I first want to steer you to two excellent posts earlier this week by Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias.  Both excellent.  Might as well also toss in a link to John Sides, who started this particular ball rolling.  So read all of those.

My interest here is in the last paragraph from Yglesias's post:
But I don’t think it’s a given that the opposition party’s leaders will reject the president’s proposals out of hand. It really depends on what they’re more interested in doing. The Democratic Party showed in the 2005 Social Security debate that it’s possible for a Republican President to formulate a proposal that meets with a response of massive resistance, but on most issues—taxes, Medicare, immigration, K-12 education, invading Iraq—there were always Democrats who were eager to cut deals with the Bush administration. 
That's right, and I think what you see here is the intersection of two different models of understand behavior in general, and politician's behavior in particular.  On the one hand, there's certainly a lot of behavior by pols and other elite political actors that can be explained by thinking about electoral incentives -- so we can suppose that the incentives for Republican Senators are different depending on whether they are in the majority or minority, whether the House is Democratic or Republican, whether there's a Democrat or a Republican at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Even there, it's tricky...the incentives for the party as a whole may be different than the incentives for individual Senators (and electoral incentives may conflict with incentives for other goals a Senator might have, such as becoming a national figure or changing the world to his or her liking).

That's not the only way to think about behavior, however.  It's also the case, at least sometimes, that pols do what they do not because they're responding to incentives, but because they're following a previous pattern that they believe worked out well for them.  That accounts for a lot of electioneering, for example; no one really knows (in many cases) what actually works, but instead whatever winners do gets adopted by everyone whether it actually helped the winner or not.  I continue to believe that this sort of "learning" explains Republican actions in Congress over the last couple of years.  The lesson Republicans took from 1993-1994 is that simply opposing everything the president does is the key to success against unified Democratic control of government.  Thus while the actual 1993-1994 Republicans selectively opposed Bill Clinton (cooperating, for example, on NAFTA, and not filibustering absolutely everything), what they remember is that they chose to oppose rather than to cooperate, and that they triumphed at the polls in 1994. 

My sense is that it takes both of these things to add up to the extraordinary rejectionist strategy that Republicans settled on after getting clobbered in both the 2006 and 2008 elections.  I've read quite a few liberal observers lately who believe that Republican behavior is strictly rational and reveals a real problem with the political system: Republicans obstruct, the government doesn't work well, voters punish the Democratic incumbents. But that formula, while it may work with the stimulus or unemployment benefits or perhaps Fed appointments, really doesn't apply across the board.  Did anyone outside of Washington care that Lael Brainard's nomination was delayed for months?  Of course not, and it's hard to make a case that Brainard's absence had any effect on the economy, certainly not large enough to affect midterm election results.  And that, at least, is something in the economic realm -- it's even more of a stretch that blocking, say, judicial nominations could matter electorally.  Nor is there any obvious electoral benefit to blocking most legislation.

What seems to have happened, I think, is that Republicans believed that their rejectionist strategy in 1993-1994 was responsible for their 1994 landslide, and from that the expectation that Republicans should oppose everything in as strong a way as possible became accepted wisdom in conservative circles, which in turn made it very difficult for Republican elected officials to buck the tide, even if they otherwise might want to.  And, of course, the subsequent drop in Barack Obama's approval ratings in spring 2009 just seemed to confirm they were on the right track (even if in fact that drop was a consequence mainly of the economy, not of GOP actions).

Of course, on many issues opposition to a liberal Democratic president hardly needs any explanation.  But I do think that Yglesias and others are correct that opposition could have taken other forms, and could have included far more accommodation -- which would have allowed Republicans to achieve more of their policy goals.  Why they didn't, I think, is best explained by the combination of electoral incentives and what I think virtually all Republicans and conservatives see as the lessons of 1993-1994 -- lessons which, assuming that November goes as expected, they'll certainly carry forward the next time they perceive themselves in a similar situation.


  1. This is why it will take (I suspect) 10-20 years of being out of power for Republicans to become a party with a governing agenda other than simply "tax cuts for all (and mind-bogglingly large tax cuts for the rich)!". They learned the wrong lesson from 1993-94.

    On top of that, they learned the wrong lesson from impeaching Clinton in 1998 (because they kept power in Congress, and seized back the presidency).

    Furthermore, they learned the wrong lessons from their 2002 and 2004 victories (not recognizing that their victories came from a) the exceptional circumstances after 9/11, and b) an underwhelming and low-by-historical-standards victory for a wartime president).

    So (at least from my perspective), there's a lot of unlearning to be done by Republicans, and it will take multiple electoral defeats.

  2. massappeal,

    Excellent -- but you're missing the biggest one: they learned the wrong lesson from Reagan. Reagan was in fact an experienced, savvy pol, but Republicans after the fact bought the Dem idea of him as a moron, and wound up deciding that lack of knowledge was an advantage in presidential candidates. We'll see in 2012 to what extent they still believe that.

    (I should say, to be fair, that all of these should properly be treated as hypotheses, not facts).

  3. It looked like they "learned the wrong lessons" all the way to political domination.

    The fact is that the 1993-94 strategy and the 2009-10 strategy are damn good strategies. Voters will blame the majority party for "gridlock" or dysfunction, even if it's the minority party that's causing it.

    Democrats whining about Republican obstructionism just reinforce the notion that Democrats can't govern. People look at Democrats and wonder why, with a massive majority, they can't pass legislation without cutting shady deals and bribing their members.

    The only hope for the republic is that Democrats take a hard look at the 94 and 2010 Republican playbook and replicate it the next time there is a Republican president.

    After one week of Democrats abusing the filibuster to the extent that the Republicans have, the elite and popular consensus across the nation will be that the filibuster must be eliminated. And it will be gone before you can say "nuclear option."

  4. ds,

    "Domination"? Hardly. Remember, we're talking about a party which, if all goes really well, will have maybe a dozen seat edge in the House and 51 seats in the Senate -- the latter, I think, still pretty unlikely. At any rate, the question is whether their political strategy in Congress is responsible for the 1994 landslide and the potential 2010 landslide. We'll see, but I don't think there's much evidence that obstruction other than on economic issues had anything at all to do with election results.


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