Friday, August 20, 2010

Incentives and Republican "Rejectionism"

There has been a lot of chatter on the Poli Sci-friendly blogs lately about the Senate Republicans' strategy of uniformly filibustering virtually all of the administration's efforts. I think the strategy - which I like to think of as operating like a parliamentary party trapped in a Madisonian system - is super-interesting and wanted to write about it. Read all four links if you like, but here's a quick summary of the original ideas in each:

Jonathan Sides is right that "elections writ large depend more on performance than on policy," so the Republicans strategy would be effective only if it actually hampered performance. He also critiques the "Party of No" messaging from Democrats, since "the people who will agree with that are the people already likely to vote Democratic."

Ezra Klein mostly just wanted to highlight Sides' post, but he does point out that "if President Romney had proposed ObamaCare before a mostly Republican Congress, it would've gotten an easy majority of Republicans" because partisans take cues from their leaders.

Matthew Yglesias corrected Klein's assertion - properly, in my view - that Democrats would have voted against RomneyCare en masse. "Had that happened," he says, "the resulting legislation would be substantially more popular with Republicans and Independents than the current legislation is." That seems right to me. Elite consensus usually leads to strong voter support (think Iraq debate, circa 2002-2003).

Jonathan Bernstein is really who I'm getting around to here:
"I've read quite a few liberal observers lately who believe that Republican behavior is strictly rational and reveals a real problem with the political system: Republicans obstruct, the government doesn't work well, voters punish the Democratic incumbents. But that formula, while it may work with the stimulus or unemployment benefits or perhaps Fed appointments, really doesn't apply across the board."
That's true. It's hard to argue that Republican opposition to, say, immigration reform really hurt voters' perceptions of Democratic performance (by damaging the short run economy). Instead, he argues that Republicans have "learned" from their success in the 1994 midterms after opposing essentially every Clinton initiative (principally the 1993 budget, which passed the Senate with Gore's tie-breaking vote). As he says, "the subsequent drop in Barack Obama's approval ratings in spring 2009 just seemed to confirm they were on the right track" in re-running the same strategy. Note that he doesn't actually believe that they're right about 1994.

I buy that Republicans are responding to both the "hey, it worked in '94" and the "maybe we can damage their performance" incentives. But it seems to me that what we're primarily seeing here is a party who's primary voters have shifted dramatically to the right. Officeholders have extraordinarily strong incentives not to cooperate with Democrats, in order to avoid primary challenges. Also, as GOP loses its moderates, the Senate caucus should logically be dominated by Senators who simply want to oppose all Democratic initiatives on principal.

Here's a fun tidbit: only Brown, Collins, and Snowe are from states Kerry won in 2004. In the 1993-1994 Senate, Slade Gorton (WA), Mark Hatwood (OR), Bob Packwood (OR), David Durenberger (MN), Chuck Grassley (IA), Alfonse D'Amato (NY) and John Chafee (RI) were all Republicans from states that Dukakis had won in 1988. And Dukakis only won ten states!

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