Friday, November 5, 2010

The Party of No Agenda

So let's say that John Boehner wants to do what I suggest he's likely to want to do: remain the Party of No, trying to replicate what he and the Republicans certainly see as the success of 2009-2010 over the next two years.*  What does that mean in terms of House activity, and what constraints will he have?  (Warning: long post ahead -- just skip down to the last two paragraphs for the pithy conclusion).

I think we can break down the legislative situation for the GOP into a few parts:

#1.  Symbolic stuff.  The Party of No strategy means trying to create as many tough votes for the Democrats as possible, while simultaneously giving conservatives Members of Congress as many good votes as possible to trumpet to skeptical activists back home.  Good: Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment (and, really, any constitutional amendments they can think of).   Good: ostentatiously reading each bill.  Good: fulfilling their (entirely symbolic and meaningless) pledge to insert a clause in bills saying why they're constitutional.  Also good: investigations into malfeasance, real or imagined, in the Obama Administration and among liberals generally.

#2.  Substantive stuff they really want to enact.  I'm not talking about repealing health care, which they know they can't do and which they may or may not care about anyway; I'm talking about mostly bite-sized, doable, payoffs to interest groups items that GOP constituencies care about.  More money for missile defense, less for NPR -- that sort of thing.  For these, Boehner should be very willing to compromise with Democrats in the Senate and the White House to get half a loaf rather than nothing.

#3. Stuff they have to do whether they like it or not.  Chief among these are annual appropriations bills, and increases in the national debt ceiling.

#4.  Unexpected stuff.  Just worth mentioning that we can't really see everything that they'll have to handle.

Now, where are the weaknesses for Boehner?

First, many Tea Party and other GOP activists want confrontation for its own sake.  That may make #2 above difficult, and may create huge problems for #3.  Some Members of the Republican conference are going to find it very difficult to pass must-pass items, either because they honestly believe that lots of the normal things the federal government has done for decades are unconstitutional, or because they're terrified of primaries from half-crazed constituents who believe those things are unconstitutional. 

Even worse, I do think that a fair number of activists want to refight the 1995-1996 shutdowns.  As Boehner no doubt knows, everything about the politics of such a confrontation works badly for the House Republicans.  Nevertheless, the leadership is vulnerable to charges of sellout on this, and they'll have to be disciplined enough to realize that actual shutdown doesn't end that problem.

Second, many Tea Party and other GOP activists passionately support contradictory and unpopular budget goals: balanced budgets with much smaller revenues and unpopular spending cuts.  I'm reasonably confident that a unified front of GOP elites could satisfy these activists with symbolic stuff such as bans on earmarks and long-term goals "reached" with creative math, but as I said earlier there are clearly strong incentives for talk show hosts, backbench Members of Congress, and presidential candidates to stake out positions to the right of the GOP leadership in Congress, and they may well call Boehner on it. 

Third, health care.  Just as there were no good options for Democrats in marginal districts when health care was being passed, there are no good options for Republicans in marginal districts now.  A just-plain repeal vote, full stop, leaves them vulnerable to being attacked over the many very popular things in the bill -- some of which are already implemented and would actually be noticed if they were repealed.  Partial repeal leaves them vulnerable to charges of betrayal from activists.  It's also actually difficult to find unpopular but significant slices of ACA to repeal.  As for defunding, I think the WaPo story gets this right: it doesn't really do what the GOP wants it to do.

I see two paths on health care that would at least plausibly work for the Republicans.  One is to do a repeal-and-replace vote in the House that involves passing an entirely nonworkable bill designed to include all the goodies in ACA, at least on the surface.  It doesn't matter if there are no works inside; after all, the bill wouldn't stand a chance in the Senate, so it only needs to be designed to deal with attack ads, not the real world.  The other, and better, path, is to just do a bill to eliminate the individual mandate.  Of course, policy analysts will point out that without the individual mandate the ACA won't work -- but good government truth squadders would probably not give their seal of approval to attack ads saying that it's a vote against coverage for preexisting conditions. 

Again, all of this analysis assumes that House Republicans choose to be the Party of No for the next two years.  It seems to me that on that path the prospects for John Boehner depend on the extent to which GOP unity inside and outside the House can triumph over the impulse of everyone to prove themselves the "true" conservatives.  Once that starts, Boehner has no good options; he's either going to wind up a RINO victim of a purge, or he's going to keep the approval of the fringe and make his conference massively unpopular with everyone outside the fringe. 

But if they can stay as united in defense of phony symbolic actions by the Republican House as they were in opposition to phony threats of czars, death panels, gun control, and Black Panthers, then they'll all survive the next two years in pretty good shape.

*The necessary caveat: I'm still not at all convinced that Republican rejectionism in 2009-2010 has much to do with Republican success in the 2010 cycle, and may have done little more in most cases than to cost them in terms of policy outcomes.


  1. republicans will be united......the tea partiers and others will all get on board with whatever boner does.....that's the way republicans always are and always will be. they'll do a bunch of silly stuff and the msm will parrot whatever line they put out. the economy will get a little bit better due to nothing they do but they will get credit for it. And obama will cave in to whatever they want.

  2. I think you are overestimating the risk in the GOP house passing a straight-repeal bill. Just like your "repeal plus unworkable replacement" example, a straight-repeal bill would have no chance of getting Senate or White House approval. So the consequences of such a bill (like people getting kicked off insurance rolls for getting sick) would never become apparent, and the GOP wouldn't have to pay the price for those consequences.

    Just like your example, a straight-repeal bill would be designed to fend off attack ads; it would not be designed to work in the real world, and it wouldn't need to, because it would never become law.

  3. I appreciate this careful analysis. It all sounds right to me, although I would add that since attempts to do things like repeal HCR or remove the individual mandate would just be symbolic (and I do think the GOP is all but committed now to holding some such votes), they're basically "free" votes for House Democrats, some of whom will just vote with the powerless majority if need be to fend off later attacks. Won't make any practical difference anyway, unlike the original votes on HCR where every Dem was desperately needed. For the same reason, it's generally going to be hard for the new House leadership to stage votes that divide or put Democrats in a difficult position: It's the House D's who now have the luxury of sitting back and deciding when and whether to be the Party of No.

    Where the rubber's really going to hit the road is on the debt ceiling and appropriations, because those votes are not just symbolic. If Republicans vote against raising the debt ceiling, I would hope -- though am not confident -- that there are Dem candidates out there ready to run against them with attack ads saying, "Call Congressmen Whackadoodle. Ask him why he voted to force the United States of America into bankruptcy for the first and only time since the Founding Fathers." And I would likewise hope that any Republican who voted against an appropriations bill would be attacked in 2012 for being "against" any item in that bill, however tiny, that Americans and/or his constituents obviously like. If I'm a Dem planning my run against Rep. Whackadoodle, for instance, I wait for him to vote against funding the Department of Education, then find some DOE grant that benefited the schools in his district and slam him unmercifully for voting to cut funding to local schools.

    Dems, of course, are usually too stupid or timid to mount such attacks. But if they do, I'm starting to think this could actually be kinda fun. :-)

  4. Further to this, see Jonathan Chait's latest post. He says the political logic points to a big confrontation as soon as next month.

  5. I think the "Party of No" in 2009-2010 contributed but was not central to the gains in the recent election.
    That being said, the campaign rhetoric used has made "Party of No" untenable for the House; too much was promised that could never be delivered in terms that made compromise impossible.
    I think the only way forward for the GOP in this next Congress is to only have the House lead to the extent that it is Constitutional required, i.e. the budget, and to follow the Senate as possible.
    Conversely, the Democrats' best strategy is to let the House take the lead and have the GOP take on very silly, extreme and/or unpopular measures and then bring those measures to a vote in the Senate, even if they vote against them.
    With luck (for the Democrats) this will set up a dynamic where the Tea Party is denied the confrontations they seek until the budget rolls around and the House is forced to take the lead. Democrats should insist that it is budget-neutral and is read, in full, during normal House hours.

    I think what the Democrats need to remember when dealing with Boehner is the saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

  6. So long as the current environment persists, What does the House GOP have to lose?

    There will be quiet bipartisan cooperation, as there always is, on noncontroversial measures. No one but the beneficiaries will care. But any 'grand bargain' of the sort pundits love would mainly benefit Obama, because presidents have a bigger megaphone and 2012 will be a referendum on him, not the GOP House.

    The only environment in which the GOP House would have a motive to do a deal with Obama is if he is successfully demonizing them as wingnuts and they need to look respectable. But we are certainly not in that environment now. Being the Party of No may not help the GOP, but it is hard to see how it hurts them.

  7. I've read dozens of analyses of the Tea Party movement(s). I think they focus too much on the empty vessels and not enough on who's pouring the water. My conclusion is that the TP can be kept as useful tools and no more if, and only if, the people that explain the world to them are willing to play ball with the GOP leadership's agenda -- whatever it is.

    Fox News -- and talk radio, sure, but mainly Fox -- created these people. It did not create the historical moment or opportunity, but it seized it, organized it$, and I think it still determines how it evolves. The trust that Fox has built up will remain, I think, because it is so string now and TPers' distrust of anyone else is so intense.

    So, will Beck et. al. continue to be loyal soldiers manipulating the Tea Partiers for hidden ends? If so, they can explain away pretty nmuch any GOP "failure,"whether contrived for their benefit or real. But, what if Fox News or its marquee stars really fancy themselves leaders in something other than the GOP? A Republican civil war could then become more than a lazy metaphor.

    With all due respect to the historical-analogists, the vote number-crunchers, and the legislative-proceduralists, the Tea Party is and will continue to be about the elites and the message they make.

  8. The Tea Baggers are the Useful Idiots of corporate America, the Koch Brothers and the Wall Street plutocrats who funded Boehner.

  9. The interesting thing about passing just an individual mandate repeal is that the unstated assumption is that it would be blocked by the Senate or vetoed by Obama. But just because it's bad policy doesn't necessarily mean that the Senate won't pass it and Obama won't sign it -- if they did, it would move the HCR debate into a completely new place, with the insurance companies desperate for further changes and no consensus on what those changes should be. Gridlock, in this case, would be the death knell for private health insurance in the US. I'm really not sure that the GOP want to risk getting into this game of chicken, so I'd be shocked to see them pass just an individual mandate repeal in the House.

  10. As an Obama supporter, I have to confess that I am rooting for either an Individual Mandate repeal, or a nullification in the courts.

    Private health insurance deserves to die on the vine.

    Shame on Obama for caving into the Big Insurance: they get both a captive market and no competition from the government??

    This is bad policy and horrible politics.

  11. Keep believing it is just the messaging and not the policy. The American people want opportunity not the government controlling their lives. I believe Boehner is smart enough to make the case for the dems being the party of more government, more spending and more taxes. 2012 will be the year for rolling back all of the Obama socialism and government over reach.


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