Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The GOP and The Establishment

Today's David Brooks column is, no question about it, remarkable. It would be remarkable if he stuck to attacking Republicans for, as Ezra Klein has been saying, refusing to take "yes" for an answer. But one could chalk that up to disagreements on tactics (and, remember, while there is some risk to the economy in letting the apocalypse approach, we haven't actually seen Republicans force a cataclysm; much of what's happening could still be just bargaining and posturing).

But for Brooks to go after Republicans this harshly, saying that "The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name" and, even more harshly, that "The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency" -- well, that's a big deal. You can be sure that Brooks didn't take that step lightly.

And yet the companion piece to Brooks's column is a reported piece by Jennifer Steinhauer about possible primary challenges to first-term Tea Party Members of the House from frustrated conservatives convinced that they've been sold out already. Now, I have to say that in my reading of the piece, Steinhauer doesn't really nail it. There is one potential challenger who claims to be more conservative than one Member, and plenty of allusion to "heated chatter," but not everything she reports seems to fit. For example, she begins with the possibility that Zach Wamp's son may be challenging a new Member from Tennessee -- but is Weston Wamp an anti-establishment or conservative challenge to Chuck Fleishmann? It's vaguely implied, but there are lots of reasons a challenger might take on an incumbent in a primary.

What matters here, however, isn't what actually happens in these primaries (after all, virtually all incumbents will survive them), but what's in the heads of Republican Members of Congress. And for that, it's possible that the ambiguities and unclear interpretations in Steinhauer's story reflect accurately a focus on primaries and Tea Party short leashes that dominate the thinking of those Republicans.

All of which means that, at this point, it doesn't really matter how many establishment figures defect or how harshly they complain: as long as Republican politicians are convinced that their main vulnerability is primary challenges from the right, they're going to get crazier and crazier.


  1. The fanaticism of a minority faction can't be the only dynamic shaping the Republican Party over the long term. Assuming that the basic observation - that they're nuts - and the implicit assumption that nuts is dysfunctional are both correct, it's just a question of how long and at what cost until corresponding electoral and/or other power-political corrections.

    It took several election cycles for the Ds to be "cured" of liberalism, though the history can also be framed as a shifting into defensive positions after the victories and over-reach of the '60s, along with what we mere mortals experience as a frustratingly slow and tragically uneven cultural catching-up process.

    To return to the present case, it's not true that "it doesn't really matter" how "establishment figures" react, presuming that those reactions represent anything more than the views of particular individuals. Brooks is arguing that the Republican hyper-conservatism has no future. If he's right, then Republican politicians and activists who would like to have a future beyond the next possible primary will have building incentives to separate themselves. There are signs that the process was already under way prior to the 2010 mid-terms, the very peak of Tea Party jihadism.

  2. @ MacLeod:

    What are those signs of change away from Tea Partyism that you see in the GOP? I'm having trouble spotting any.

  3. Lodus: I think there is much evidence of, at minimum, an awareness that Palinism-Beckism is a dead end. Look at the reaction to the O'Donnell candidacy within the party, or Palin's own poll numbers. You could look more recently to the Coburn-led mini-rebellion against Norquistism, or to Romney's and even Giuliani's (!) polling vs. the true believer types. For that matter, even the cancellation of the Beck show at FNC may be more than a straw in the wind.

    Don't get me wrong. I think Mr. Bernstein's thesis regarding political incentives has merit, but it makes as much sense to look for declarations of independence from Tea Partyism as for crazy statements of fealty to it. How the debt ceiling vote plays out may tell us much about where we really are. It seems to me that a lot of people are extrapolating on the basis of negotiating positions (i.e., crazy posturing), as though they were the same as actual outcomes.

  4. @Lodus: It's subtle, but Tea Party candidates, at least on the state level, are seeing their approval ratings drop as they try to enact the crazy agenda that got them elected. Rick Scott in Florida is at 29% (granted, he did just barely squeak by, but he's gone nowhere but down). Scott Walker in Wisconsin has busted unions and his own approval rating, which is also at 29% (and he got elected with over 52% of the vote, so there was a clear lead for him). Nikki Haley in SC, who was very popular and got 51% of the vote, is currently at 42% approval rating. Many of the stronger Tea Party agenda items (such as the "no compromise" tack they're taking on the debt ceiling) are meeting with strong disapproval among moderate voters. Brooks is very correct to identify them as the deciding factor in the 2012 presidential election. While Jonathan may be right in stating that incumbents almost always survive primary challenges, think about how much energy those incumbents will have to expend fighting off challenger ON THE RIGHT, let alone anywhere else. If this is the case, then we're only going to see the GOP get more crazy, not less. If there is one thing that Americans do NOT like, it's craziness in our politicians.

  5. Macleod, Eric, thanks for the thought-provoking responses. I agree both that the tanking of the Tea Party governors seems notable, and that the denouement of the debt ceiling fight will reveal much about where the GOP stands. Can't say I'm optimistic at this point, but hopefully you guys are right and the GOP is (or will shortly be forced to) starting to turn a corner towards moderation.

  6. Macleod, Eric -- yes, but the real question isn't about whether Tea Party governors are unpopular -- it's whether they become unpopular within GOP primary electorates. Or more generally, whether GOP primary electorates, activists, and organized groups come to believe they're better off supporting popular moderates than unpopular true believers. I don't see much sign, so far, of that happening.

  7. David Frum's indictment of Obama for caving in to GOP extremism makes an interesting counterpoint to Brooks' column. Frum has credibility on this front because he's been a brave critic of Republican extremism for some time now. http://bit.ly/kG8Syz

  8. All this hand wringing about how "crazy" the Republicans are works to their benefit in negotiations with Democrats.

    There's nothing really surprising about Brooks' column, except maybe the goofy histrionics.

  9. It is important to separate conservative candidates that were elected to state-wide office from candidates who are elected to national office, and even the candidates that are elected to state-wide offices face different realities and electorates in every state. I would also say that perhaps one of the most significant factors in the unpopularity of the Republican governors in the Midwest is that states like Ohio and Wisconsin tend to have more moderate politics, and the economies throughout the states have been badly hit by the recession. Not to mention their attack on organized labor in states that had historically had strong labor unions and manufacturing sectors.

    That being said, there are other Republican governors in states like Texas where the governor has been not such revolt by the electorate. Which leads me to whether or not Republican primary voters have been or might in the future begin to elect more moderate (or electable general election candidates), and that answer seems to be, at least anecdotally, no. We saw the Republican primary voters cause the Republican to lose a chance at taking control of the Senate by nominated candidates like Angle and O’Donnell. We will likely see Republican primary voters in Iowa no elect someone like Romney and someone more like Bachmann. The standard answer from conservatives on why a Republican loses an election is because the candidate was not conservative enough.

    One of the reasons that Republican incumbents worry about primary challenges from the right is because (if they are not in safe Republican district) they do not want to spend the campaign cash and political capital in a primary before the general election. While I think the influence of the Tea Party may have reached its peak, I think that it will take some kind of significant event to change the internal dynamics. Perhaps along the lines of 1964.

  10. Couves,

    No question that getting everyone to believe you're nuts can work for you in negotiations. If you're not actually crazy.

    We'll see.

  11. Jonathan,

    It's already worked for Republicans during previous budget negotiations. As to whether Republicans are _actually_ “crazy” -- The real threat is the uncontrollable debt crisis we risk if we don’t rein in spending. This is what Americans and bond holders have to fear most. If showing resolve in dealing with this problem means not raising the debt ceiling for a period in time, then that *might* not be a terrible thing. But the risk is that we’re already so deep in it, that anything could spook bondholders and throw us into a death spiral. If that’s the case, then we’re already in much bigger trouble than most people think…

  12. Did it work in the gov't shutdown? It's not really clear to me that they got more than they "should" have given their numbers.

    As for the rest...well, I don't think there is any such threat, and neither to the markets, as of now.

  13. Should we worry about imaginary bondholders being "spooked?" Wouldn't defaulting on our debt, or threatening to do it, "spook" them right now? Seems like we're talking about things we only assume are true, but may not be. Founder of PIMCO seems to differ:


  14. Jonathan, on your second point -- you’re probably right. And for that reason, failing to raise the debt ceiling is unlikely to have catastrophic consequences. But the risk becomes grave if we continue without major reform… just ask the CBO.


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