On the Costs of Non-Strategic Uni-Partisanship

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As a corollary to Nolan's commendation of President Obama's efforts at bipartisanship, I would suggest that the behavior of the Republicans during the stimulus debate may have created some longer term problems for the party.  While in the short term the members of the minority party are likely to be commending themselves for flooding the cable news networks, seizing control of the "message" (albeit temporarily) surrounding the stimulus, and maintaining strong party discipline, let's take a look at what will be left once the bill is signed into law: (1) Despite near total unity, the Republican party will have been unable to prevent the bill from passing; (2) The only Republicans who will have had a modicum of an effect on the bill's content are precisely the same people that the party spent most of the Bush years marginalizing, moderate Republicans from the North East; and (3) the dominant narrative on bipartisanship will have been set by President Obama in his press conference: he (Obama) goes farther than any previous president to embrace the other side, but has been rebuffed by a dominant partisan culture; nevertheless, he'll keep trying in the future because he's the candidate of change.  The net result: Obama looks like he is keeping to his bipartisan promises, the Republicans look obstructionist, and a bill that is almost entirely written by Democrats (with contributions from a few moderate Republicans) gets passed.

From a policy perspective, this can not be good for Republicans.  So probably we should conceive of these tactics as primarily political, a kind of doubling down on the 2010 midterm elections by reestablishing the Republican brand in voters' minds.  But what is really likely to happen in 2010?  While it is of course too early to know for sure, the simple mathematics of which seats are being contested in 2010 suggests that by far the most likely outcome is that the Democrats will hold on to their majority in the House and may even gain seats in the Senate. For example, the website fivethirtyeight.com ranks Senate seats in terms of their likelihood of changing parties: the top five are all Republican seats, as are 8 of the top 10.  While past patterns suggest that the out of power party usually picks up seats in off-year elections, there is a non-trivial chance that after the 2010 elections Obama will have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a sizable (if even somewhat smaller) majority in the House.  With this in mind, does the Republican party really want to spend all of this term putting its effort into unified opposition to the President? 

The wild card in all this is of course the economy.  Perhaps economic conditions will deteriorate to such an extent that voters will be throwing Democrats out of office left and right in 2010.  (But as an aside, do the Republicans really want to look like they are rooting for a continued deterioration of the economy?)  But perhaps the economy will make voters react with even more venom than usual against parties that are viewed as being obstructionist in a time of national need.  We just don't know the answers to these questions yet, but it is probably something the Republican party ought to consider as the legislative term moves forward.

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The other thing to consider here is that the discretionary funds in the departments are going to be distributed by political appointees. How much of this money is going to Republican districts or states? Probably not much. When 2006 rolls around Democrats will systematically be able to claim more pork than their Republican counterparts. We'll see who likes the bill then.

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