Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Party Strength and the Shutdown

Mark Schmidt has a very much worth reading piece over at TNR in which he makes the counterintuitive case that the problem leading to the shutdown is party weakness, not party strength. I recommend it, but I'd take the same facts and put it in a different way. To some extent, this is just terminology, but I think that there's more to it than that; properly understanding party strength is necessary to understanding what's gone wrong with the GOP.

Here's a taste of his argument:
In fact, “partisanship” isn’t the cause of the shutdown. And we’d probably be better off if politicians—that is, Republicans—were thinking more about the interests of their own party....

[T]he modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who Businessweek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.
Yes and no.

What I'd say is that the current Republican Party is both strong and dysfunctional.

The parties - both of them -- are strong in the sense that almost everything in US politics runs through the parties. 

That hasn't always been the case. In the nadir of party strength, which was roughly in the postwar era,* much of what happened in US politics didn't run through the parties at all. To begin with, we had an era of "candidate-centered" politicians, who recruited their own supporters who were personally loyal to them; found their own sources of money that were personally loyal to them; and, generally, did what they wanted. It wasn't just about campaigning for office: once elected, politicians generally turned to either personal loyalists or to partisan-neutral governing professionals. Think, for example, of Nixon surrounded by Haldeman and Ehrlichman (both of whom had no GOP ties but were pure Nixon creatures) and Kissinger. The neutral press dominated information flows. Even many of the early campaign consultants of the time worked for politicians from both parties.

That's all changed. Now most campaign professionals and a large number of governing professionals are party people -- not (usually) from formal party organizations, but people who have made their careers working within one political party, usually for a series of candidates and party-aligned groups. The party-aligned press is strong, especially on the Republican side. Candidates raise most of their money from party donors, often through party-aligned groups of one kind or another.

Because (or at least probably because) most of this party growth has taken the form of informal networks of party loyalists rather than under the control of formal party organizations, it's meant that our contemporary strong parties are not inherently hierarchical. Put it this way: if you want to run for Congress, you may be able to find a party faction or party-aligned group who will support you, even against a same-party incumbent...but you usually won't have a chance as a pure outsider to the party. Primary elections, then, often serve as tests of strength between different party groups or factions. Not, however, between party and anti-party groups.

(It's further confused because the participants often don't use that kind of language. Tea Partiers, who are not only GOP-aligned but pretty close to being the core of the Republican Party, often talk as if the Republican Party is an enemy, rather than saying that they -- the Tea Party -- are the true Republicans. But that, in my view, is in fact just semantics).

Schmidt talks about campaign finance and outside spending, but quite a bit of that outside spending is party money, in one way or another. He says that such money can "destabilize and decenter the process," but for the most part it was never stable or centered in the first place -- one of the big things that's happened over the last forty years or so is the rise of national political parties, which hardly existed for most of the nation's history.

So the best way to think about, say, the Koch brothers is that they are influential national Republicans who have some limited ability to influence the party, but must compete with others for influence.

OK, that's all about party strength. But what's happened to the GOP is that it's become broken and dysfunctional. In particular, there's a strong chunk of it that seems to be dedicated not to normal politics, but to making money by fleecing the rubes and easy marks that appear to have an enormous appetite for purchasing cultural/partisan products. And that, indeed, produces all sorts of perverse incentives. some extent it's just semantics to want to call this dysfunction within a strong party rather than just calling it a weak party. But it matters because it's the very strength of the parties that makes it such a big deal when one of them is broken. And because extremely strong parties tend to suck in everything around them, so that the Crazy Caucus becomes a fringe, and then an important group, within the GOP, rather than just existing out there in the nowhere by itself.

I wish I had a solution for the broken GOP, but I don't. One thing, however, that this analysis suggests is that making the parties "stronger" isn't going to do it. Increased partisanship (what Schmidt wants) might well lead, in these circumstances, to an even bigger conservative marketplace, and even more perverse incentives. Increased hierarchy might give a John Boehner more influence...or just wind up meaning that demagogues and snake oil sellers feel compelled to take over formal positions if possible, and they might well succeed.

I do think that the path for a solution has to found in recognizing that the people, institutions, and groups causing the trouble are found within the (expanded, in my terminology) Republican Party, not outside of it. But alas that's about as far as I can get. If there's an obvious solution to the broken, dysfunctional Republican Party and the damage it's doing to the US, I sure can't see it.

*The timeline is complicated, and much of it is undocumented. Some apartisan elements in the system seem to have been strongest in the immediate postwar period and were already fading by the 1960s and 1970s; others, however, didn't show up until the that later portion of the era. By the 1980s, all the indicators (as far as I can see) were all pointing in the same direction (towards stronger parties), but in roughly the eight decades before that there are plenty of things working in opposite directions from each other.


  1. I agree with most of your points.

    The problem is compounded when the President, who, at least to some extent, is supposed to be the leader of *all* of us and rise above politics in times of crisis, refuses to do so. In the past we had examples of Johnson working with Dirksen, and Reagan with Tip, even Clinton and Newt (a bit). Today, Obama seldom meets with his opposition.

    Now, one can still assign much of the blame to the Republicans, but when Obama's consistent response to a crisis is to play the blame game instead of attempting to fix the problem, he must take much of the blame too.

    1. Implicit in your suggestion that Obama "attempt to fix the problem" is that he negotiate with the other party. Democrats, however, are not asking for any actual concession, since both sides agree the government should continue operating. So implicit in a negotiation would be Obama making unilateral concessions, which would set a precedent that every instance of government funding or potential debt default is an opportunity for a minority party to cause a hostage crisis and demand legislative changes they don't have the votes to otherwise pass. Why would he possibly ever consider doing that?

    2. Agreed. The House GOP hasn't presented anything that can be negotiated, while the Speaker is under a gag order NOT to negotiate.

    3. Adam, in the House, Republicans are not the minority party. However, you make a good point that a CR is not be the time to insist on major changes.

      Anonymous, if some compromise, like Reid agreeing to bring up the Medical Device Tax for a vote, comes out of the current meetings, you will have be proven wrong.

    4. Morgan, Obama has attempted to negotiate with Boehner on several occasions over the past three years. I think Boehner, personally, is open to negotiation and would appreciate being able to achieve something. House Republicans, however, have repeatedly rejected his efforts, and the negotiations have failed. This past winter, after the most recent failed negotiation, Boehner gave up and announced that he would no longer negotiate with Obama, but that was (in my view) a concession to his own party's die-hard faction. Now that the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner, they suddenly want to "negotiate,' (and, to be sure, they've always claimed that it was the other side that refused to negotiate) but the negotiation is about an artificial crisis that they themselves created in order to coerce the other side. The other side naturally sees this as unreasonable. Apparently--at this point, at least--the Republicans believe that their bargaining position will be improved when the debt-ceiling issue comes up because GOP senators will be in a better position to use the filibuster (which is limited on budget votes). That, however, means that they have to convince the Democrats that they are actually willing to risk a new recession--conceivably, a new global economic crisis--just to prevent people from getting health insurance. It's an unusual position to be in, to say the least.

  2. The president is a politician first and foremost. You don't get to become the president by pretending that you're "above" politics. Barack Obama has shown himself willing to compromise, but Republicans didn't want compromise, they wanted total and utter defeat for the president.

    I don't think there is an obvious solution, but Jonathan you're right about the role of conservative media. So many explanations of how democracy produces effective government hinge on the idea that there's a competition between parties or political entrepreneurs who are motivated by reelection. This, combined with the ascent of "true believers" into positions of power, has brought us where we are now.

    I think the only solution is a huge, debilitating electoral defeat. I may be naive here, but it seems like this must be what it feels like to teeter between one 'regime' and another (in a Skowronek-sense of the word).

    1. I shouldn't have used the word 'pretending'... Obviously a lot of politicians pretend to be above politics. But you can't actually ACT like you're above it, and have a chance at becoming the president.

    2. Why it is o.k. for the president to be a politician first and foremost but somehow wrong for the Republicans to want to defeat him politically? You should either condemn both sides for putting politics above what is "right" and driving us into a ditch, or neither.

      Condemning Republicans for playing politics while giving Obama a pass is hypocritical.

    3. "Condemning Republicans for playing politics while giving Obama a pass is hypocritical."

      If you actually read what people are saying, they aren't condemning Republicans for "playing politics". "Politics" is another word for democracy. The problem is holding the entire government and the full faith and credit of our country hostage.

      "You should either condemn both sides for putting politics above what is "right" and driving us into a ditch, or neither."

      This is terrible advice. To punish a politician is to reward their opponent. The condemn "both sides" is therefore to reward both sides--it's a zero-sum game. The only way to hold politicians accountable is to punish them when they're worse than the other side and reward them they're better. It must be comparative, and to prevent comparisons is to prevent the only input voters have into a representative democracy.

      "Condemning Republicans for playing politics while giving Obama a pass is hypocritical."

      Making a demand that the president be "above politics" without making that demand of anyone else is nonsensical.

      "Obama's consistent response to a crisis is to play the blame game instead of attempting to fix the problem"

      The blame game is how problems are fixed in a representative democracy with separation of powers like our. Find the people causing the problems, get the voters to threaten them with loss of power unless they stop causing problems.

      To the extant that Obama deserves blame here, it's that he gave too much in 2011, signalling to the GOP that he was weak and they could demand more with every budget, CR, and debt-ceiling change. Some problems only get worse when you try to be "above politics".

  3. Jonathan, I am somewhat confused why the House Democrats are not helping pass a CR. (other than politics on both sides of course!) Do you have some analysis, or links to info, on why Boehner doesn't bring up a clean, or 99% clean (perhaps that Tax Break) CR and get some help from Pelosi to pass it?

    1. Democrats aren't "helping pass a clean CR" because Boehner refuses to allow a clean CR to be voted on. If he did, they would vote for it and the shutdown would end. As to why he isn't, the main reason is because much of his caucus would be furious with him and likely depose him as speaker.

    2. Adam - since there is a Politico article from Monday afternoon saying that Pelosi had just announced support for a clean CR, apparently before that she wasn't supporting it. And Steny Hoyer is still vocally against a clean CR at sequestration levels.

      So I'm not clear if the lack of a clean CR stems from the Hastert Rule (thanks Anonymous for the lead!) or a fear by Boehner that a clean CR would anger his radicals and also embarrassingly fail.

    3. Morgan, Democrats would prefer a CR that was not at sequestration levels, but my understanding is that they plan to fight for that in the next round. This CR would fund the government for only a few weeks (to mid-November in the Democratic version, mid-December in the Republican version). The GOP, while complaining that no one will compromise with them, have conveniently overlooked the fact that no one has been fighting them on the level of funding, either in the CR that just expired on in the one they're fighting over now.

      By the way, short-term continuing resolutions are normally passed to give the parties time to negotiate on issues, not as a reward for caving in.

    4. Scott, you, and a couple of others, have said that Demos aren't fighting over the level of funding. This is incorrect. According to Politico:

      Steny Hoyer is still fighting on level of funding. And it was only late Monday that Pelosi said she would support a CR at Sequestration levels. Before that she had "refused to officially accept the ... funding levels"

      So, the two top House Democrats are (or were) fighting over funding levels. It isn't clear if a clean CR would have passed with Democratic help last week.

      That said, at this point I think Boehner should do some facesaving, then quickly bring up a clean CR and hope it passes with bipartisan support.

    5. Morgan: First, I would not cite Politico as a model of outside-the-Beltway political wisdom. Politico’s crippling myopia is well documented.

      Second, nothing has come up for a negotiation. The House [GOP] has refused, repeatedly, to conference with the Senate. So if Steny and others in isolation are talking tough it is because they have latitude and license to do so. The rubber meets the road when they conference, and my guess is that neither side will allow the other to budge the needle from a CR that maintains a strict status quo.

      if the Ds are dumb, they’ll submit to some short term CR extension, which merely kicks a crisis down the road a few weeks. They’ve played dumb before, but I think they know that... so I place the chances of a short term CR at 50/50.

    6. Checking on your "facts", I just googled "house senate conference". The very first hit,,0,5498203.story

      (followed by many more)

      says that the House has voted to seek a conference committee with the Senate. And that the Senate has rejected it: "Democratic leaders promised to swiftly reject the offer when the Senate met later Tuesday morning" With some unhelpful rhetoric from Reid about "anarchists" thrown in.

      Until you get your facts right, you should stay Anonymous.

    7. Scott, anon, and others are correct, Morgan Conrad is incorrect, not sure that he cares.

      "This was the 19th time Senate Democrats have asked to form a budget conference committee."

      The House has, indeed, repeatedly refused to conference with the Senate. They only started asking for a conference after they shut the government down. Reid is only willing to go to conference once the government is started again.

      If you don't think government shutdown and default should be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations, you should agree with Reid--both that going to conference before restarting is bad, and that what the GOP has done is fundamentally destructive and shouldn't be rewarded with negotiations.

      Furthermore, the Senate is insisting on going to conference after the government has started running again *at sequester levels*.

      When you say "It isn't clear if a clean CR would have passed with Democratic help last week.", you should realize who is to blame for that not being clear--the GOP that refused to bring a clean CR up for a vote.

      Nonetheless, even the article you linked said "There was little doubt, however, that if called upon Pelosi would have been able to deliver the votes."

      And note what you're arguing here. We're trying to tell you that Dems let Republicans have basically everything legitimately on the negotiating table--the entire sequester. You're objecting--some of them didn't quite want to give up everything. Well, sure, that's why it's a compromise. But the Democratic equivalent of the Republican position here would be to vote to shut down the government unless the full sequester was restored AND comprehensive immigration reform was passed.

    8. I think people are confusing two different conference committees. The Democrats wanted a conference on a Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Resolution. It's now a little late for that. The Republicans now want a conference on the currently proposed six-week continuing resolution.

      For several years, the Senate has not bothered with a budget resolution (I assume because they could see that it would go nowhere). A budget resolution is not a budget per se. Its an outline to guide the various congressional committees so that their various appropriation bills aren't wildly out of whack. Those appropriation bills become the actual budget. Now the Republicans have been castigating the Democrats for not "passing a budget," apparently assuming that people would think they meant some sort of official document to fund the government. So, this year, the Senate passed a budget resolution called for a conference committee to reconcile it with the House's budget resolution. As could have been predicted, the House refused to conference on it, so nothing came of the exercise. And, for the record, not one of the 12 usual appropriations bills has been passed. That's why we need a continuing resolution to fund the government. The continuing resolution simply authorizes the government to keep spending at the levels that existed up to September 30 (which were also determined in a continuing resolution).

    9. Prefix-free. Pelosi could deliver the votes I'm sure, if she wanted to. But, until yesterday, she didn't say she wanted to, leaving Boehner guessing and out on a limb. So you can't blame the House Repubs for not bringing up a clean CR last week.

      I agree that they can be blamed for this week.

    10. Addendum on Pelosi - my theory is based on the "news" that on Monday Pelosi announced her support for a clean CR, implying to me that earlier she was against it. If this news was misreported or mislead me then my theory is likely wrong. :-)

    11. And I do care if I'm wrong. As you can see in the last post. Thanks for the link.

    12. After stewing on it overnight, you guys have convinced me that the House Tea Party bears the overwhelming blame for the current CR impasse. prefix-free made some compelling arguments.

    13. FWIW, I *was* indeed suffering under the confusion Scott was talking about re:conferences.

      And I am now, of course, quite certain that Morgan cares about the facts, and am quite sorry for doubting that. My tone was a much bigger mistake than any factual error we made. Sorry.

  4. Megan, read up on the Hastert Rule. You'll find your explanation there.

  5. "There's a strong chunk of it that seems to be dedicated not to normal politics, but to making money by fleecing the rubes and easy marks that appear to have an enormous appetite for purchasing cultural/partisan products."

    Case in point:

  6. I agree with JB's parenthetical about the tea party -- that it basically is the philosophical base of the GOP. So on the one hand, that gives us very good reason to doubt any claims to independence. But on the other hand, the rhetoric of change makes real change in the party's core philosophy easier than it otherwise would be. So it's easy for the party to embrace Rand Paul's anti-interventionism and civil libertarianism as acceptable "tea party" deviations, rather than RINO incursions to be fought-off.

    The deciding factor will be whether the new philosophy is embraced by the wider electorate and is seen as an effective weapon against Obama/Hillary. That's certainly been the case recently, which has made this a very good year for Rand. But it's the whole "tea party" concept that makes it so easy for the party's philosophical core to change on issues that defined it during the Bush years.

  7. I don't know, JB. If I follow some of the line of thought of earlier posts you've had this week, then part of it is that Boehner and other GOP leaders are wagering that it's worth it to take the broad public hit now over a shutdown, in order to build up ammunition in awkward votes and fundraising to use to gin up right-of-center turnout as much as possible in fall 2014. I think this is dubious, but I'm open to seeing how my in-the-moment thinking on this is that of a shortsighted high-info voter. The GOP strategy might be relatively well calibrated to maximize 2014 gains before they face the inevitably worse environment of 2016. And they may still even be thinking that they can pull off some pivot after fall 2014 or count on sporadic Democratic voters, by 2016 not to have even notice too much what 2012-2014 required. Thus this might all be about a still in-place GOP party hierarchy carrying out a high-stakes strategy according to a certain logic.

    1. Another way to see this is that the especially large generational gap in political views and voting behavior got us into this mess in 2010, and until that underlying phenomenon is mitigated, there's no reason for the GOP not to leverage it in 2014 (especially when major business groups have basically signed off on the tactic, not overly worried and content to make pro-forma statements while enabling the high-stakes gambit).

    2. I'm not actually seeing much strategy here, PF, mostly wishful thinking. Their base has been clamoring for a government shut down ever since the start of 2013.

    3. Part of myself agrees with you. But I think some of the most cynical, most powerful party insiders -- including Boehner when he's meeting with McConnell and Ryan -- have been consciously following a certain sort of high-stakes strategy all along that one could criticize as "wishful thinking," but which isn't, on its face, impossible given 1) the aporia of democratic representation and accountability in a Madsonian system, 2) a little luck, and 3) a Democratic Party that would continue to make sub-optimal plays.

      The most immediate exhibit at hand of this is Ezra Klein's interview with Grover Norquist yesterday:

      Now Norquist is rationalizing in some parts here and complaining about Cruz, etc, etc, etc. But it's also clear that he's in close contact with people like Ryan and Boehner, and that they've long had conscious plans and gambits. He and his partners may not be outright winning right now, but it's still too soon to say whether the GOP is losing and will still be losing by 2014 and 2016.

  8. All I know is that a small faction of GOP congressmen is threatening the nation and the world economy in a way that no terrorist group could realistically accomplish. A weakness in our constitutional government is being exploited, and in the next two weeks we're in real danger of blowing it out of the water, in an inexorable and uncontrollable cascade that could take months to play out but will leave us with a very different reality.

    The influence of political party organizations in general aside, in this instance I do very much wonder whether there is a specific source of financing that's fueling this (beyond the small donations such conflicts gin up for both sides.) This is one case where a billionaire or two--no matter what their agenda might be, corporate greed or crypto-religious apocalyptic anarchism--can start the process that ends up in a national and world economy in shambles, and real anarchy in America. It may seem fantastic but somebody better start taking that possibility with the utmost seriousness. And that somebody is the speaker of the house.

  9. This community has talked in the past about "conservative = individual" and "liberal = collective". Its in the sense of "conserative = individual" that the modern Republican party maps poorly on 21st century American life. This poor mapping is the source of the dysfunction, it seems to me.

    The ACA is a great example. If you are a young invincible, and have a reasonable expectation to stay that way, and further if you are "individually oriented", the ACA is not your friend. Indeed, your interests are served by exclusions for pre-existing conditions, as those exclusions allow you to benefit from your health by paying less for insurance. OTOH, if you are individually-oriented and have a pre-existing condition (and you can't get insurance elsewhere), the ACA is your friend. That's only the tip of the complexity iceberg; obviously, if you are "individually-oriented" and trying to evaluate the ACA, the answer depends on the individual.

    So, it seems, does it go with the entire Democratic party platform. Democratic policies help individuals and they harm other individuals. As Anastasios likes to point out, hopefully (for Democrats), they help - and inconvenience - the intended targets. Even if that's true, they leave the modern conservatives in a morass.

    To some extent, this underlies the dysfunction and inconsistency you find in the Tea Party movement and the right wing in general. The Tea Party generally wants to return to a more 'conservative' America that more appropriately reflects individual interests. The problem, with the ACA and every other Democratic policy initiative, is that some Tea Party members are served by the policy, and some aren't.

    Which leaves right-wing ideology trapped in a philosophical, but never practical, bubble. Those partisan media types are exploiting the phenomenon; they didn't create it.

    1. Just wanted to say thanks for this post, CSH. Really illuminates the everyday philosophical appeal and allure of individualism in confrontation with the social realities of American life, especially as they developed since the turn of the century for Tea Party grassroots (middle-class whites in the South and Midwest who feel economically and culturally embattled).

  10. Because of my political outlooks, I've been aimed at as a lightning rod, someone who's too far out there.


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