By Joe Campbell
February 4th, 2010
Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.
Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)
What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?
Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:
The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.
There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:
McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.
Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:
GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’
Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’
GOP member: ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’
Dem member: ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’
Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:
“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”
Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.
In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:
Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.
With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.
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Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Ezra Klein, FiveThirtyEight, Government takeover of the internet, John Hibbing, John McCain, Judd Gregg, Mitch McConnell, Nate Silver, Net Neutrality, Part of No