Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Iron Law of Politics (Beanbag, This Ain't Edition)

Ezra Klein had what I think is a great point yesterday.
Then there's this question of "hardball." This is broader than the Rand/Conway race, but what, exactly, is the evidence for the widespread Democratic belief that Republicans are ruthlessly effective tacticians while they are wilting violets? [...]

A lot of liberals I know believe that conservatives are coldblooded in a way they simply aren't, but should be. And so on some level, they're really glad to see Democrats bringing a howitzer to a gun fight. But I just don't see the evidence that this stuff is working out for Republicans. What accomplishments do they have to show for it? What enduring majorities? Where's the payoff for quieting your conscience? Putting aside the morality of "these vicious, horrible people will do anything to win, and therefore so too should we," where's the evidence that it works?

The other part of this is that conservative activists believe the exact opposite -- they believe that Republican pols are a bunch of wimpy, half-hearted idealists who allow ruthless liberal Democrats, who play this game for keeps, to trample all over them.  Indeed, this follows the Iron Law of Politics that everyone believes that the other side is better at the mechanics of politics: the other side is always more ruthless in their exploitation of the rules and willingness to ignore ethical niceties, more tactically adept, better at extracting money from their base, and (depending on who is complaining) either better at ignoring the policy demands of their crazy ideological base in order to win the center or better at addressing the policy demands of the base, while our side uses and then ignores the policy demands of the base. 

In a second item, Klein notes as evidence of successful GOP hardball tactics the Swift Boaters from 2004; while he doesn't include it, many Democrats believe that a difference in willingness to fight hard was responsible for the outcome of the 2000 recount.  But Republicans have their own list of grievances, including the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush's driving record in 2000 and the stuff about his military service in 2004. 

While I'm not sure that I would say that both parties are in all cases equally ruthless, or equally unethical, I would say with some confidence that most of this is just the Iron Law in action, nothing more.  That's not to say that the parties have followed identical strategies; Republicans, as far as I can see much more than Democrats, have exploited situations in which ignoring unwritten rules can help them, such as the decision to redistrict in Texas once the GOP took control, rather than waiting for the next census.  In opposition in Congress, Republicans in 1993 and 2009 followed rejectionist strategies, while Democrats in 2001-2006 for the most part did not.  But as far as I can tell, those are choices (right or wrong) of optimal strategy, not a question of guts vs. fecklessness.  And I agree: to the extent that the parties have followed different strategies, it's not at all clear that Republicans have benefited.  


  1. The other part of this is that conservative activists believe the exact opposite -- they believe that Republican pols are a bunch of wimpy, half-hearted idealists who allow ruthless liberal Democrats, who play this game for keeps, to trample all over them

    Is there evidence -- any at all -- that there really are Republicans who actually feel this way? Or is this just more "pox on both houses"-type false equivalence BS?

    In any case, you only need to look back at the last couple of years to see how the GOP's ruthlessness has been rewarded: because of their intransigence, the Democrats were forced to severely compromise on health care reform, abandon energy legislation, and they were not able to pass a large enough fiscal stimulus. Meanwhile, the Dems refuse to enforce majority rule, and their agenda languishes. The result: voters in the bluest of blue states elected a GOP senator, robbing Dems of their 60-vote majority; and (here's that stubborn fact again) the GOP is headed to a historic landslide in the midterms.

    The GOP is directly benefitting from their own malfeasance, while the Dems sit idly by. I'd say that's proof positive that "hardball" works -- and, for the last couple of years at least, this game has been played exclusively by the GOP.

  2. It's also not at all clear that they haven't benefitted. To determine that, we would need to know what their baseline level of support really is. Suppose that, instead of the hardball, the lies, the smoke'n'mirrors, the accusations of treason, etc., they frankly explained what they really stand for: that the most important thing government should do is reward the wealthy (because they are, ipso facto, the most "productive" members of society); that ordinary people should stop looking for handouts, like SS and Medicare, and should go back to fending for themselves; and that in international affairs, war and threats of war should be a first or second resort, not a last resort. What would their usual vote share be? Would they even be viable as a national party? I don't think so. The fallacy here is defining "benefit" or "working for them" only in terms of "enduring majorities." Just keeping them competitive, if they otherwise wouldn't be, is a staggeringly huge benefit.

    Another fallacy: Even if hardball tactics worked only once, i.e. in the Florida recount, that is huge -- it created the presidency of George W. Bush, and with it the war in Iraq and the eventual $3 trillion bill for that. And that's to name only one obvious policy consequence. So referring to the Florida recount dismissively is like saying that Lincoln had a good night at the theater except for that part with the derringer.

    Also, if your best examples of how the grievances are equivalent are Florida recount + Swift Boat versus drunk-driving arrest + Bush military service, you're tending to disprove your own point. The recount hardball had the full weight of the GOP apparatus behind it, and there's good evidence that the Swift Boat attacks were coordinated with Karl Rove. In contrast, the drunk-driving arrest was leaked by some local guy in Maine, and it was CBS News, not the Dems, who went after the Bush military records in '04. In both cases, IIRC, the national Democrats and their candidates made a point of staying out of it.

    Finally, this "Iron Law" reminds me of the old line about how there are two kinds of people in the world, those you can divide into two groups and those you can't. The fact that complaints from activists on both sides mirror each other doesn't mean everyone's equally right / wrong about them. It could equally well mean that one side has a valid complaint and the other side is answering it with further lies. And anyway, there's a good reason for Democrats to play hardball even if GOP hardball doesn't "work" (though I think it does; see above). That reason is deterrence theory, something conservatives themselves claim to believe in. If one side knows that both sides can and will play the same game, it's less likely to see any benefit in attacking. Therefore, maybe it will have to fall back on, you know, actual policy discussion and the like. Thus, paradoxical though it seems, Democratic hardball offers the best chance of raising the overall level of political discourse.

  3. So, you're saying that if the R's dropped their Rove / Gillespie tactics, if they played fair, if all their ads passed factchecks etc. etc., we'd still be in the same stinking mess?

    Is this Voltaire with an irony-deficiency?

  4. I hate the Iron Law, because every time I think the Dems are being soft and the GOP not, I have to allow for the possibility that I'm biased.

    For me, the best example is the Swift Boats. Not that they existed or whatever, but Kerry's amazingly tepid response. That was a conscious choice.

    In regards to your last paragraph, how could we tell if it was a difference in cool intellectual decisions over the best tactics vs a difference in "guts." And, does the distinction matter? The GOP seems to me to play harder ball: think Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky vs Nick Smith. In MMM's case, she was one of many Dems who was asked (with some pressure, of course) to vote their way. In Smith's case, he received a not-so veiled threat that his son's career could go well or go poorly depending on his vote. And, I just have a lot of trouble accepting the argument that Reid is as good at his job as McConnell is (and we have seen McConnell as Majority Leader, and I don't seem to recall ANY real problems with Dem filibusters).

    I think the tough part becomes separating out, though, how much of this is Iron Law, how much is fecklessness, and how much is having a much more diverse caucus.

  5. Further to what Matt just said: Just how Iron is this Iron Law? Or, what evidence would it take before we could conclude that there really is a difference between the parties here? Surely we'd all agree that there have been situations in history in which two competing parties were not on an equal footing in terms of ruthlessness. If the Social Democrats and the Nazi Party of Weimar Germany both complained about each other, that wouldn't be just another example of the Iron Law at work, right? "Oh, activists on both sides always accuse each other of being a bunch of Brown Shirts." Yeah, but in that case, one side really WAS a bunch of Brown Shirts.

    So, what would we have to see, in present-day America, before we could conclude that there really is a difference here too (if not quite to that extreme), and that therefore what we're dealing with isn't some Iron Law, but an actually justified complaint of one side agqainst the other?

  6. There are two parts to this: (1) the Iron Law, and (2) Whether GOP hardball has mattered.

    On (1), I'll note that the Iron Law doesn't say anything about the actual differences between the parties; it just says that everyone will believe (regardless of the facts) that the other side is more ruthless, better at tactical stuff, etc.

    On whether there actually are differences that have made a difference...I'm just very skeptical, especially about the fecklessness stuff. What mattered in 2000, eventually, was that the GOP had five Supremes on their side, but does that make them more hardball -- after all, the Dems took their case to the FL courts. (Yes, I think think that the SCOTUS decision was a joke, but there's no way to know whether a liberal majority would have made an equally joke decision in similar circumstances). The other thing that people point to is Lieberman's bit on the overseas ballots, but I think the correct assessment of that episode is that Holy Joe is a jerk and Gore was an idiot to select him, not that Democrats are wimps.

    And no, I'm not convinced that the Swift Boat thing (or the Kerry campaign reaction) made much of a difference. Kerry IIRC either matched or beat predictions based on the fundamentals, so it's possible his campaign helped, not hurt, him.

  7. the Iron Law doesn't say anything about the actual differences between the parties

    This is highly disingenuous. There was an obvious (and obviously intentional) implication to your "Iron Law" statement: that Democrats' belief that the GOP is tactically superior/tougher is not based on FACT, but rather is based on some universal, innate impulse to see the other side as better.

    And yet, I still haven't heard of a single example (anecdotes would be fine) of a Republican believing that GOP pols are wimpy "half-hearted idealists" being pushed around by those ruthless and unscrupulous Democrats! You'd think that, for a so-called Iron Law, there would be at least a modicum of empirical evidence to support it.

  8. Andrew,

    I should have answered you earlier...and I'm totally going to give you a lame answer now, because the ballgame is starting and then I'm not sure if I have time to answer comments the rest of the day, but: you're right that I'm making an assertion here without providing any evidence, but I really don't think the evidence is at all difficult to find, if you head over to any conservative blog, or listen to conservative talk-show hosts, or talk to conservative activists. I've certainly encountered lots and lots of examples of such talk in each of those places. I mean, that's what the whole ACORN thing is all about, from their point of view.

  9. Andrew,

    You've obviously never bothered to talked to a single Republican in your entire life. I'm not saying you have to or that you should want to, but you're the one making the extreme assertion here, and you sound completely naive to a present-day liberal that grew up in a conservative environment. You don't need any evidence for this, just talk to any-and I mean any single one-Republican.

  10. C'mon. The Iron Law is about the subjective experience of partisans. It has nothing to do (as you later admit) with results.

    Ezra was asking for evidence that hardball works.

    I challenge you and Ezra for evidence that the successes the R's have enjoyed can attributed to superior policy chops or some other admirable quality.

    "Death panels", "permanent bailouts", "socialism"...

  11. Jonathan:

    Two quick points, confining myself to "is one party following a more ruthless strategy" and "does it help":

    "I mean, that's what the whole ACORN thing is all about, from their point of view."

    So yes, but the ACORN thing is ridiculous and made up. The vote fraud/suppression thing doesn't really help the your case unless it's only about equivalence of noise, given that there's plenty of evidence of suppression and none of fraud.

    As to evidence that it works, I'd wonder about this:


    the first thing I got when I googled for historical election models. Turns out that Republicans win more house seats than modeled in every midterm election from 1974 to 2002 and that the margin is getting bigger. I'd be inclined to describe that as some evidence of political success. One recalls of course that 2002 is the year when every Republican compared their opponent to Osama bin Laden and the party gained in the midterms.

  12. OK, I've calmed down.

    1) Our voting system makes a 2 party system inevitable (does this require defense?).

    2) A 2 party system, over time, will stay pretty close to 50 / 50 - the party in power too long will show fractures, and party compositions will change.

    Therefor, the success of "hardball" politics can't be measured that way.

    But the Republican party has moved far, far to the right, dragging the "center" with it.

    I conclude that "hardball" politics has been very, very successful.

    (I also believe that D's can't play the same kind of "hardball"; they can't lie, make things up, or appeal to fears. But when they see a vulnerability, they sure as hell can and should stomp on it.)

  13. I agree with Gordon: There's equilibrium in the system when you look at vote shares, but the GOP has managed to stay within that equilibrium while moving much harder to one side ideologically. Hardball-ism seems to be at least part of why that's been possible.

    I also agree that the D's can't generally stoop as low at R's do, but I still think, in the spirit of my deterrence theory above, they could help everyone by taking a few underhanded advantages now and then. For instance, one standard Rovian / GOP tactic is to extrapolate from some Democratic position, draw some far-fetched conclusion about its possible unintended consequences, and then accuse the D of favoring those consequences. Thus, John Kerry proposes X (I forget now what it was exactly), X will cost money, so instead of arguing that X is a bad idea or shoudln't be a federal priority, Bush/Rove say he's "proposing" to raise taxes. That could easily be turned around: Some GOP candidate opposes stem-cell research, stem-cell research could lead to breakdthroughs against disease Q, so you run an ad saying, "Why does candidate so-and-so want to block treatments for disease Q"? I notice that at least one Dem congressional candidate is doing this (finally!) with HCR repeal this time -- leaving HCR itself out of it and accusing his opponent of calling for discrimination by insurance companies against people with pre-existing conditions. Even has the advantage of being essentially true.

  14. "the Iron Law of Politics that everyone believes that the other side is better at [among other things] extracting money from their base"

    I can understand the other things, but I don't get how this can be so with money. Obviously both sides are heavily corporatist, but the Republicans are less coy about it. How can rightwing ideologues believe that the DNC is squeezing more money out of dirty hippies than the RNC can get out of megacorporations?

  15. TGC: the bugbear tends to be unions.

    Andrew et al.: in re: health care reform, don't you think the GOP actually lostout by playing so hardball? -- I mean that if e.g. Grassley had shown the slightest sign of sincerity in negotiation, he could have extracted a LOT of concessions from Baucus. He wouldn't even necessarily have had to vote for the bill, just the committee version, in order to negotiate the bill to a substantially more conservative place. The resulting bill would of course have been a lot better from the Republican point of view. By making it known from the beginning that no Republicans except Snowe and possibly Collins had any leeway to even consider supporting the bill, the Senate GOP leadership squandered any chance at real leverage over its contents. (I think it was Chait who got me to see it that way, but not 100% sure.)

    Tbf, not sure the same is true of stimulus. But climate failed first and foremost because so many Democrats couldn't be won over.


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