Friday, October 8, 2010

More on 1995/2011

I'm continuing to think about what the 112th Congress will look like next year if Republicans do about as well as expected in November...

I think everyone should keep in mind one key difference between 1995 and 2011: experience.  Famously, not a single Republican Member of the House in 1995 had ever served in a GOP-majority House (a handful had been part of Democratic majorities before party-switching).  No one knew what the Republican way to run a committee, or a subcommittee, or the House floor was.  No one -- not Members, not staff, not interest group allies -- knew how Republicans dealt with budget resolutions, or appropriations bills, or the debt ceiling, or Congressional pay, or all the other normal parts of legislative governing that Republicans had happily opted out of when they were in the minority.  That's not the case now; John Boehner and his staff won't have to figure out what they're doing as they go along, and neither will incoming committee and subcommittee chairs. 

On top of that, House Republicans were burdened with, well, let's just say, someone who was not exactly born to be Speaker of the House of Representatives.  That is, Newt Gingrich was a bombastic fraud, and it took months for the GOP conference to realize that, and years for them to get rid of him.  In my (admittedly speculative) judgment, they're in much better shape this time around.  John Boehner isn't going to inspire the rank-and-file, but he's also much less likely to embarrass his conference in front of the press, and he couldn't possibly be a worse strategist or negotiator than Gingrich was.

Is that going to be enough for the Republicans?  I don't know.  Boehner's team will (and of course this is all if they win a majority, which is likely but not certain) have to deal with some pretty difficult circumstances.  The gap between what GOP voters want and the reality of what they can get is going to be enormous, for both policy reasons (since for example their budget demands don't add up) and for political reasons (since Barack Obama will be in the White House, and because whatever happens in November the Senate will still be the Senate).  In my view, both of those gaps are quite a bit larger than they were in 1995; Barack Obama is likely to be at least somewhat more popular than Bill Clinton was back then, Republicans will probably either not have the Senate or not have much of a working majority on most issues, and the policy environment, as everyone knows, is quite a bit more difficult now than then. 

As I said earlier today, the partisan media (far better developed than in 1995, when Fox News didn't even exist) will be very helpful in convincing activists and voters that Boehner & co. are doing a great job -- but only if they choose to do so, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that they may not, at least not unconditionally.  And while Gingrich had to deal with new Members who were caught up in believing their own rhetoric about revolution, Boehner will have to deal with something even worse: an entire conference absolutely terrified of their primary electorates. That's going to mean that even if leadership can figure out the safest path for the party, it may have enormous difficulties getting Members to go along. 

Conclusion?   On the House side, the GOP is much, much better prepared to take over than they were in 1995.  And: they'll need to be; their challenges will be a lot harder than those they pretty much failed at back then.


  1. I think Boehner faces a tougher problem than you give him credit for. He doesn't face "an entire conference absolutely terrified of their primary electorates." He faces maybe 2/3 or 3/4 of a conference like that.
    The other 1/4-1/3 of the conference won't be SCARED of their primary electorates, but has consumed the Kool Aid themselves.
    This was also part of Newt's problem. It was just his personality; he also helped bring to DC a bunch of people who were, quite frankly, committed ideologues. Thus, in 1998, a handful of these ideologues could toss him overboard. Boehner will be facing a minority of insane nutjobs inside his own conference, people with whom there will be no compromise.
    How is this different? Primary-pressured members want cover. Ideologues want their policies, and only those. You can buy off pressured members with promises of campaign support, with public statements, and with horse-trading. You can't buy off the ideologues, especially on the issues that motivate them.

    If the GOP holds on for a few years, Boehner will very likely meet the same fate as Gingrich, though he'll be hoisted on somebody else's petard.

  2. Sorry, it WASN'T just Newt's personality, it should say above.

  3. A glimpse at these tensions as they're already developing (the URL itself tells the story):

  4. Is the Tea Party comparable to Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer and the rest of the Christian Coalition types of the late '80s? I recall that the religious right threatened to splinter at that time, and it seems as though the issue has been addressed by moving the party significantly to the evangelical right...(regrettably, in this RINO's opinion). This evangelizing of the party may have silenced the separatists among the religious conservatives.

    Will the Republicans have to become deficit hawks to mollify the Tea Party crowd? I agree in the abstract that the support of the Foxy/talk radio media machine, together with the experience of the new leadership, could allow Boehner et al to skate around actually doing anything about the deficit while still romancing the Tea Partiers.

    But if the Tea Partiers are as insistent as the Christian right was 20 years ago, that could make things awfully dicey for Boehner and Co.

  5. Boehner might go over the side much quicker than you think.

    McConnell as well.

    Notice that amidst all the hoo hah and whining about the Tea Party, politics is taking on a more retail flavor. The committed ideologues you're decrying here are connected more closely to the electorate as a result.

    That electorate knows what it wants... and it isn't spending at 25% of GDP and trillion dollar deficits, borrowed from the Chinese.

  6. Boehner will keep his foot out his mouth but I doubt he can keep his entire caucus from doing the same when it includes people like Bachmann. Even if congressmen say nothing wild there is still Mama Grizzly. Do you really think she will spend two years out of the limelight by not saying anything to embarrass Boenher? If I worked in the White House I would treat the Pitbull as the head of the GOP.

    Fox News, Limbaugh and Beck are in the entertainment business. They also do not care about offending the majority of the country. They care mainly about good ratings for themselves. They will give a platform to Palin, Bachmann and company if they say anything wild to get attention.

  7. Matt,

    Awful hard to tell which pols really believe their own rhetoric, and which are just committed to using it for whatever political reasons. What I would say is that if it's the former, it may be possible for a good Speaker to educate them; if the latter, probably not.


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