Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some limitations of the Republicans' "Party of No" strategy (David Frum & Kevin Drum)

David Frum, continuing his quest to act as the Voice of Reason on the right, tries to tell his Republican friends (and ex-friends) that the Republican Party's currently dominant strategy of pure obstructionism laced with opportunistic demagoguery is not just un-constructive, but also substantively irresponsible and politically counter-productive.

Kevin Drum quotes a few key passages from Frum's column (I've filled in some elliptical gaps):
1) Instead of a healthcare reform to slow cost increases, Democrats in the Senate seem to be converging upon an expansion of Medicare to include age 55-64 year-olds and an expansion in Medicaid up to some higher multiple of the poverty limit. You might wonder why they didn’t do this before: expanding existing programs is always easier than creating new ones. So now instead of a new system that attempts to control costs, we’re just going to have a bigger and more expensive version of the old system, with a few tinkers around the edges. Republicans could have been architects of improvement, instead we made ourselves impotent spectators as things get radically worse. Plus – the bad new Democratic proposal will likely be less unpopular with voters than their more promising earlier proposal. Nice work everybody.

2) House and Senate conferees last night rejected a proposal to deny EPA funds to enforce its new powers over greenhouse gasses. So instead of an economically rational approach to carbon abatement – a carbon tax or even a cap-and-trade system stripped of the abuses and boondoggles attached to it by House Democrats – we’re going to have the least rational approach: bureaucratic enforcement.

The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We’re getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.
He might also have quoted Frum's concluding paragraphs, which are harshly acute:
As is, we’re betting heavily that a bad economy will collapse Democratic support without us having to lift a finger. Maybe that will happen. But existing party strategy has to be reckoned a terrible failure. Most Republicans will shrug off that news. If polls are right, rank-and-file Republicans feel little regard for the Washington party, and don’t expect much from it. But it’s the rank-and-file who are the problem here! Republican leaders do not dare try deals for fear of being branded sell-outs by a party base that wants war to the knife. So we got war. And we’re losing. Even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey- we said we’d never do that.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?
=> A lot of that is intelligent and sensible (even if one doesn't agree with Frum's ideas about what the best policies would be). But Kevin Drum puts his finger on a dubious assumption underlying Frum's whole analysis. Frum presumes, with unwarranted optimism, that the Congressional Republicans actually have constructive alternatives to propose, and have substantively sensible policy ideas that they would be willing and able to bring to negotiations. Frankly, that looks more like wishful thinking than realistic analysis. ("Republicans could have been architects of improvement"? Yes, and if pigs had wings they could fly ... if they wanted to fly ... but they don't.)

Consequently, and somewhat ironically, Drum is less sure than Frum that the Republicans' rule-or-ruin strategy is necessarily a tactical error. Sure, the results are bad for the country, and might even be disastrous for the Republican Party in immediate partisan terms, too. (This assumes, implausibly, that there is some degree of cosmic justice.) But given the circumstances that actually exist, is it realistic to imagine the Republicans have a better strategy than rule-or-ruin available? That's not obvious. The conclusion that Kevin works his way up to (in a footnote, no less) strikes me as the key point: "There are no deals to be made until conservatives start getting serious about governance again."

His thoughts on the way to that conclusion are worth reading, so see below.

--Jeff Weintraub

(Kevin Drum:)

Roughly speaking, I think Frum is right. The Republican strategy is high-risk/high-reward. If it works, then no legislation is passed and they get everything they wanted. But if it doesn't, they get a far worse deal than they could have gotten if they'd bargained.

But I'd a few caveats to Frum's specifics. First, the healthcare bill could have been improved only if Republicans had proposed serious cost-control ideas within the basic Democratic framework. After all, Democrats won the election, and the very least they expect is to be able to dictate the basic framework. But it's not clear to me that Republicans even have any ideas along those lines. It's possible that they could have bargained for, say, some tort reform concessions, but how else would they have cut costs? There's no one in the GOP seriously in favor of sticking it even harder to doctors, insurance companies, Big Pharma, or the elderly. So what would they have proposed? Their pet ideas (HSAs, gutting state regulations, etc.) don't really fit within the Democratic framework, and to be honest, their support for these ideas has always been so ephemeral and opportunistic that I'm not sure they care about them very much anyway. It's hard to believe that they genuinely believe in any of this stuff enough to bargain their votes away for it.

The EPA endangerment ruling is a different kettle of fish. My sense is that the Obama administration has no real desire to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. The reason they've moved ahead quickly on the endangerment finding isn't because they really want to implement it, but precisely because they think it's a good stick to get some Republican support. The message is: you might not like cap-and-trade, but if you scuttle it you're going to get something worse. So why not work with us?

So far, then, conservatives haven't really lost anything on this front. They're just being confronted with some hardball politics. As with healthcare reform, though, I wonder what Republicans have to offer. It's true that cap-and-trade was originally a conservative idea that was largely adopted by liberals after it proved itself in the case of acid rain, which means that theoretically Republicans ought to be able to support it. But the "boondoggles" that have been attached to it haven't really been ideological. They've been cave-ins to corporate and regional interest groups. What are the odds that Republicans would help resist that kind of pressure?

Still, Frum does have a point: Democrats are genuinely anxious to have a few more votes for both the healthcare bill and the climate bill, and I'm pretty sure they'd be willing to bargain away a fair amount in exchange for a vote. So I'm curious: within the basic Democratic framework of these two bills, what kind of deals does Frum think Republicans could plausibly make that would be worth trading their vote for? This is a real, not a rhetorical or snarky, question. Given the current state of the conservatism,1 it's hard to see what they'd be.

1Which, admittedly, is Frum's whole point. There are no deals to be made until conservatives start getting serious about governance again.