Saturday, January 19, 2013

What's Wrong With The GOP

It's not a lot of fun being a Republican Party leader these days.  Between being rejected at the polls last November and the never ending series of calamities that are befalling the GOP on Capitol Hill (think Sandy aid, Fiscal Cliff, Plan B and now their cave on the debt ceiling) the party just doesn't seem to be working very well.  In looking at this dysfunction political scientist Jonathan Bernstein recently pointed out two points that show the GOP is suffering something more than just poor leadership:
What sort of serious, substantive policy initiatives like this could Republicans push on their side? There isn’t anything. And that’s the crux of their problem.

The core of the GOP agenda remains the Ryan budget, but that had very few specific cuts and the numbers never actually added up. They certainly could continue trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they’ve long since given up on offering a replacement.

Republicans, that is, don’t actually have a program with popular items that they could run on and then pass if they won. After all, they didn’t run on their Medicare program in 2010 and 2012; instead, they called anyone who accused them of cutting Medicare a liar and instead ran against Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare. What exactly is the GOP equivalent, just in terms of swing-voter popularity, of Lilly Ledbetter or SCHIP right now? Beating up on Planned Parenthood?
And he right, there is a shockingly large policy gap between our two parties these days.  Questions about how to create jobs or improve the lot of the middle class constituencies that decide presidential elections are answered, if they are answered at all, with the same boiler plate of tax cuts and de-regulation that conservatives have been preaching for over 30 years now.  Not only do these policies have poor track records over the last 20 years but they are also unpopular with the American electorate who do support things like higher taxes on the wealthy. 

Bernstein was writing to point that the conservative commentator Phillip Klein had actually been on to something when he suggested that Republicans could learn a lot from how Democrats acted after they won control of both houses of Congress in 2006:
[I]t’s worth looking back at the Democrats’ strategy following their takeover of Congress in 2006. Despite their strong rhetoric, they ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War. This generated a forceful backlash among their base, but it also enabled them to continue running against Bush’s handling of Iraq, rather than allowing Bush to change the subject to “Democrats don’t care about our troops.” 

During this time, Democrats also pushed legislation that furthered their agenda — including an expansion of the children’s health care program SCHIP (which Bush vetoed) and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which Republicans blocked in the Senate). Both bills were quickly passed and enacted once Obama became president.
Klein is right that this is a better model than threatening to destroy the world economy if you don't get your way, but his commentary betrays another problem with the GOP.  Saying that Democrats "ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War" strikes me me as simply a new Green Lantern Theory of politics, call it the The Green Lantern Theory of Congress.  According to this theory the only thing that accounts of Congress's inability to change national policy, in this case the Iraq War, is a lack of Congressional will.  Like the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency this theory is simply not grounded in the reality of how of system of government works.  The reality is that because of the Constitutional designation of the President as the Commander in Chief of the military, the President enjoys broad latitude in the use of force internationally.  Furthermore the legacy of American involvement in two World Wars and one Cold War in the most violent century in the history of human civilization has curtailed Congresses role in foreign policy as well.  So even if the Democrats wanted to end the war in 2007 they couldn't, not because of a lack of will power, but because that not how foreign policy in the US works.  Looking at Klein's Green Lantern Theory of Congress things like the debt ceiling fight suddenly make sense.  The problem is that the GOP is trying to force policies on the nation while it only controls one half of the legislative branch of the government.  The idea that the exists some way to do this, rather than accepting that the realities of divided government entail compromises and a limited agenda, results in doing things like threatening to destroy the world economy unless your demands are met.

These two structural factors, a lack of concrete policy prescriptions and the unfounded belief that political actors are only constrained by their lack of will go a long way at explaining why the GOP has become so dysfunctional, and why it will continue to be so.  

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