Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Big Myth of Rejectionism

Here's how things are around here sometimes. I saw that Ezra Klein had written a post about "The Myth of the Presidential Mandate" late last week and open it in a tab. Didn't read it right away: I figured immediately that it was going to be a smart piece and that I'd agree with it, and since I wasn't really interested at that point in piling on about mandates, I'd put it aside for later. And when I did get to it last night, you know what? It was a smart piece, and I do agree with it.


Late in the piece, and separate from the mandate issue, Klein repeats what I think is one of the biggest myths out there: that rejectionism is the obvious strategy for the out-party because it works:
Minorities don’t become majorities by helping the other party govern successfully. When things go well, voters reward the party in charge. More often, minorities become majorities by grinding the gears of government to a halt, amping up partisanship and doing everything they can to make sure voters are disgusted with Washington.
That's been accepted wisdom for at least Republicans ever since 1994, and for everyone else after the first two years of the Obama presidency. But I don't think it's true.

Yes, both the 1994 and 2010 election cycles were marked by GOP rejectionism -- opposing every presidential initiative, regardless of what it was, as successfully as possible.

And yet: I don't really think it's fair to think of the 2006 Democratic landslide that way. Democrats certainly did oppose plenty of George W. Bush's initiatives, sometimes successfully, but I'm not sure I recall anything that Democrats had previously supported which they switch on in order to sink the president. I wouldn't characterize the 1980 or 1986 election cycles that way, either, even though they both produced flips in the Senate. The Democrats did quite well on the House side in 1982, despite certainly not practicing Gingrich-style rejectionism in 1981 and 1982.

Now, I'm certainly not arguing that out-parties should never oppose the majority. Of course not. But a full-on rejectionist strategy? At best, the effects are unproven.

I'd add two things to that. The first is about rejectionism working on a symbolic or messaging level. For that, one would think that choosing rejectionism over compromise on the most high visibility things is far more likely to have any effect at all on public opinion than is, say, blocking district or even circuit-level judicial nominees. Because, of course, the general public is not going to know about that. You have to go pretty far along a tenuous causal path to believe that the latter has any effect on voters at all (it would have to depend on the press processing the whole thing, and sending out a different signals based on those failures than it would have sent otherwise).

The second is that rejectionism that has real, voter-noticed effects is also going to be relatively rare, although presumably the economic crisis in 2009 was one of those times. Again, however, that speaks to the question of compromise or conflict mainly on the economy.

What that suggests to me is that all-out, across-the-board, rejectionism is probably electorally irrelevant. It may -- may -- make sense in electoral terms to oppose (regardless of policy preferences) an administration's  most visible legislation, and especially in dicey economic times it make make electoral sense to oppose bills that would help the economy. But that's about it; most of the rest of what Republicans have done over the last few years probably didn't matter.

Rejectionism can contain risks, too. It can hurt the reputation of a party if elites believe that the party is not acting constructively; rejectionism also presumably entails asking Members to take some tough votes (that is, if rejectionism is a deliberate strategy and not just the residue of polarization). More to the point: if Members do have policy goals, rejectionism will likely be terrible strategy most of the time.

Again, I certainly expect the out-party to oppose much of what the president wants to do. The question, however, is whether they should, for electoral reasons, oppose everything -- even when they can make policy gains by compromising. I'm not at all convinced that's a smart strategy, and I don't think that 1993 and 2010 proved that it is.


  1. I basically agree with your analysis. I think rejectionism can generally be a successful tactic only when it does not call too much attention to itself.

    The view that rejectionism is always the best tactic can be disporved simply by looking back a few more election cycles. Rejectionsim was disastrous for the Republicans in 1948, when Truman successfully ran against the Republican Do-Nothing Congress.

  2. We have two recent examples of an out party engaging in out-and-out rejectionism: 1993 and 2010. Both examples resulted in electoral landslides of historic proportions in favor of the out party.

    I think that fact is all you need to know in order to gauge how effective out-and-out rejectionism is as an electoral strategy. (The fact that the Democrats scored similar victories in 2006 and 2008 without using such tactics is irrelevant.)

    What you seem to be saying is that the out party don't have to oppose everything in order to reap the rewards of full-on obstructionism - they just need to oppose the majority's signature proposal, as well as any initiatives that might boost the economy.

    I fail to see how that makes "rejectionism is the obvious strategy for the out-party because it works" a myth.

    if Members do have policy goals, rejectionism will likely be terrible strategy most of the time.

    To the contrary, an out-party Member that has strong policy goals would be foolish not to follow the 1993/2010 GOP playbook. If history serves as a guide, that obstructionist Member will be part of a huge majority the next time Congress convenes. Which, presumably, would be a pretty good result for someone with a specific policy goal.

    1. 1. If there's a top ten list of things that I really want to get across to people, it's not to assume that everything done by winning campaigns helped and not to assume that everything done by losing campaigns hurt.

      2. On policy goals: really? How much of the GOP agenda on health care has been enacted this year? If ACA survives the Supremes, how likely are Republicans to achieve their health care goals next year -- even if Romney wins and they take the Senate, neither of which is by any means certain?

      OTOH, it's pretty clear that Republicans could have achieved a fair amount by agreeing to compromise on health care in 2009.

      Now, it's very possible that most Republicans don't actually have any policy goals on health care, and it's possible that on such a high profile bill the electoral calculus might -- might -- have kicked in. Very hard to say.

      But for example: there were Republican Members who strongly supported end-of-life counseling. That fell victim to rejectionism. Do you expect it to pass in a GOP-led Congress anytime soon?

    2. 1. I get that, but wouldn't you agree that obstruction of fiscal expansion (in the name of deficit reduction) undoubtedly helps the out-party because it tamps down the economy? Wouldn't you also agree that an out-party can single-handedly take a broadly popular policy and make it a partisan issue by opposing it in lockstep? Out-and-out rejectionism implies both of these things; and it avoids the necessity of having to pick and choose which of the majority's proposals to support.

      2. True, the GOP was not able to repeal ACA (which, I assume, is what you mean by "the GOP agenda on health care") in the 112th Congress. But, given how enthusiastic most Dems have been about the legislation, (and assuming it survives SCOTUS) I certainly believe repeal will happen in 2013 if Republicans control the WH and Congress.

      I also don't see any reason why a GOP-led congress couldn't pass end-of-life counseling, if they really want to. It doesn't matter that they opposed it when it was part of ACA. As you have noted, what's bad about end-of-life counseling (from the GOP perspective) is that it is part of Obamacare. As soon as it's not part of Obamacare, it becomes acceptable again. (Same goes for almost every other provision in the law, other than the mandate.)

      Note also that, in the last two years, the GOP has made progress on their primary policy goals: reducing government spending and reducing taxes. Hard to imagine the debt-ceiling deal happening, for example, if the GOP hadn't engaged in full-on obstructionism.

    3. I think the problem with your analysis is that you are arguing that because successful implementation of "my way or the highway" has predated political gains, it's a useful strategy. Afterwards, one can do whatever one wants. I mean, just look at John Boehner as an example of someone getting all his policies goals done!

      Jonathan is arguing that if one accepts a seat at the table, one can effect policy changes that benefit one's side even if one is the minority. This is what Frum argued after ACA passed, for which he became unemployed.

      There's also two more ideas: first, that the minority may have ideas of merit when it comes to governing, and second, that by actively getting along on the small stuff, routine matters like raising the debt ceiling don't have to cause widespread financial shocks to the economy.

      The cost of scorched earth politics is too high to allow anyone but the party leaders to progress on their goals. I think a big reason why Republican thinkers are in favor of it is that they really distrust any ideas junior level Republican politicians might have.

  3. You know, I kinda started my dissertation down part of this path, and retooled and did the dissertation on another. I could write something up, if you want (it'd be long).

  4. Consider this thesis:

    Via outright rejectionism the GOP in the 111th congress DID achieve it's policy goals (as well at its electoral goals).

    ACA: The bill passes is basically the GOP plan. By being stuck negotiating with its most conservative members to come up with votes, the Dems had to drop popular items like the Public Option.

    Stimulus: Lots of tax cuts.

    Dodd-Frank: Quite bank-friendly.

    Maybe, that was a one-time thing. But the Dems on their own passed very centrist rather than leftist legislation.

    1. I think if you compare the policies as passed to what Dems and Republicans campaigned on in 2008, you're going to find that the policies are far closer to the Democratic platform.

      I wouldn't call any of what they did "leftist", but I think all three of those measures fit well within where mainstream liberals are. And while it certainly could have moved the bills to a more liberal direction if there were have a dozen Jim Jeffords types in the GOP conference, that wasn't where the opportunity was; a compromise ACA would have probably had lower subsidies and possibly some (additional) giveaways for GOP-aligned interests, but it wouldn't have added any features that liberals like.

      And BTW, I don't think there's anything inherently "left" or "right" about tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus during a recession.

  5. A key concept that is seldom discussed when arguing electoral politics is the assumption that Party A = Party B. That is to say, it is assumed that any given tactic will be equally effective regardless of which party uses them. Tucked into that reasoning is the idea that the same tactics will work the same under different conditions. This isn't true in warfare. This isn't true in sports. Why should it be true in politics?

    Just like a football team cannot run the same play on every down, political parties need to switch up their tactics. Similarly, the team must run plays that cater to their particular strengths while exploiting weaknesses in their opponents and also take into account the factors of the game such as the current score, time remaining, grass or turf, weather, you name it…

    I don’t want to get into the implications (obvious as they are) but it seems to me that the only real conclusion that can be made about rejectionist/obstructionist tactics is that they seem to be working for the Republican party right now. That isn’t to say that one cannot derive general rules about the conditions under which such tactics are most effective. But it is a mistake to argue over whether the tactic is effective or not when it clearly can be.

    * * *

    Tangentially--and I have no notion of a remedy--I am perpetually bothered by the notion that the federal government needs to be so active. The “do-nothing” pejorative should be a compliment when applied to congress. I’ve often heard it lamented that the framers created such an inefficient legislature. One can only lament that fact if they are either a) ignorant of the framers’ intent, or b) at odds with the framers.

    I’m going to leave that last thought sit, and anyone who cares to take it up may do so. But they must also take it up with this: the law is meant to provide certainty where it otherwise does not exist. When new uncertainties arise, new laws may be created to deal with said uncertainties. However, when the creation of law becomes itself the source of uncertainty, then there is a real problem. That problem can only arise when the lawmakers are overactive. We have that problem now.

  6. This makes a lot of sense to me. But let me offer some pushback, if only so you might correct me about my ingrained but mistaken and muddy reflexes:

    You say: "Rejectionism can contain risks, too. It can hurt the reputation of a party if elites believe that the party is not acting constructively"

    This is one of the risks that has never really and fully manifested itself. It's striking. Several elites at the margins who previously saw the GOP as respectable and deserving of support have stopped, but not many. And mainstream, non-partisan opinion still takes both parties just as seriously as it always has; the GOP has faced barely any costs among elites for its strategic periods of rejectionism, whether focused on the economy or blanket in nature. That fact above all else does a lot to enable rejectionism as a viable political strategy.

    And although we might have to wait until 2012 to say so definitively, startling rejectionism has not led to poor electoral results among the broader electorate, even when some polls have shown that the GOP brand has suffered to a significant degree. This disjuncture is either real and striking, or we just have to wait until post-Labor Day when people who've tuned out since 2008 will tune in, and the GOP and Romney should suffer accordingly.

    1. I think those are good points, and my response is basically: I can't say for sure.

      I will add one more potential risk: I suspect that rejectionism is a poor incubator for good public policy.

    2. Strangles it in the crib, you betcha!

  7. I think rejectionism fits the mood of the Republican electoral base toward the Obama Administration, and therefore Republican members of Congress like Senator Lugar who are not rejectionist toward the Obama Administation risk primary defeat. My own Congressman, Chris Smith (R-NJ 4), one of the least conservative Republicans in the House on economic matters, just engaged in rejectionist rhetoric in mailings to Republican primary voters to defeat unknown and poorly financed conservative primary opponents in last week's New Jersey primary.


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