Monday, October 14, 2013

Noam Scheiber predicts that the Congressional Republicans will cave in and we will avoid economic disaster

Over the past few days I've posted two items suggesting, among other things, that the Congressional Republicans may actually wind up forcing the US government into default and, potentially, crashing the world financial system.  So it seems only fair to balance those with an intelligent and plausible analysis that suggests a more optimistic scenario (relatively speaking!) for the outcome of this crisis.

That analysis was presented yesterday by the New Republic's Noam Scheiber in an on-line piece titled "The Inevitable Republican Collapse That Will End the Shutdown: The grim, angry, loopy, and predetermined conclusion to Washington's crisis". Basically, Scheiber argues that at this point the Republican Congressional leadership, as well as a critical mass of House Republicans, realize that they face a public-relations debacle and potential electoral disaster if they don't find a way to back off from their present strategy before they push the economy, and themselves, off a cliff. A messy but non-catastrophic solution will be negotiated in the Senate, and then House Speaker Boehner will push the Senate's solution through the House by putting it to an up-or-down vote by the full House (despite the fact that this will provoke outrage among many Tea Party Republicans), at which point it will be passed by a large majority of House Democrats plus a sufficient minority of House Republicans.

Maybe. I hope he's right. But even if that punch-line turns out to be overly optimistic, Scheiber's analysis of the political dynamics of the current crisis and the processes leading up to the crisis is full of insightful and illuminating points. It's worth reading in full. Here are some highlights:
Setting aside the hourly thrust and parry between Democrats and Republicans, here’s how the shutdown is likely to end: Senate Majority Harry Reid is going to strike a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell at some point in the next few days. The deal will reopen the government for a medium length of time—possibly till January 15, when the next round of sequester cuts kick in—giving the two sides time to replace the sequester with something more appealing. The deal will also raise the debt ceiling—maybe for as little as a few months, maybe until after the 2014 election. Reid will give up almost no concessions in return for any of this, with the exception of one or two symbolic items, and he’ll probably get some higher-than-sequester level of government funding (a top Democratic priority) for a month or two starting later this year. Pretty much every Democrat in the Senate will vote for the deal, along with at least five and maybe as many as 20 Republicans.

As the minutes tick away toward default this Thursday, the Reid-McConnell arrangement will be the only deal in town. With no alternative to avoiding a default, House Speaker John Boehner will add some small face-saving alteration and bring it to the floor, where it will pass with several dozen Republican votes and a large majority of Democrats. In doing so, Boehner will reprise the same formula he deployed in resolving last year’s fiscal cliff fight. I know this because it’s how the GOP has gotten out of pretty much every self-inflicted PR disaster of the Obama era, and it’s where the best reporting available suggests we’re headed today.

Of course, I could be wrong on the details.  [....]  But those are the basic contours of what a deal will look like, and they’re notable for what they almost certainly won’t include:  anything that has more than a trivial effect on Obamacare, any cuts to entitlements as the price of reopening the government or raising the debt ceiling (though Democrats may give a bit on entitlements in exchange for ending the sequester and some new revenue). Which is to say, the deal will include none the key demands the Republicans were hoping to achieve by shutting down the government.

Or, put differently:  On policy, the Republicans will end up either about where they were when they started this fight, or worse off. Politically, they’ll be in a far weaker place, having seen their public support collapse. Along both dimensions, they are faring worse than they did even in 1995-6, when Bill Clinton accepted some of their key demands, and when their approval ratings didn’t sink as low as the latest polls suggest they’re sinking now.
So that's the (guardedly) optimistic prediction. Next question:
How has it come to this? After all, there were reasons to think Republicans would be in a stronger position today than in the mid-‘90s. As my colleague Nate Cohn and other stats connoisseurs have pointed out, the public is more polarized along ideological lines than it was back then. That means a party can do its level best to piss off the entire country—and the GOP has really thrown itself into the challenge—and still retain the support of 45 percent of voters.

Likewise, most Republican House members represent such conservative districts—the average House district is 11 points  more Republican than the rest of the country—that they can simply disregard national poll numbers. [....]

Taken together, the data suggested there was a floor of public support below which Republicans simply wouldn’t drop, no matter how insanely they behaved, and that there would be no particular sense urgency driving them to strike a deal. These forces seemed likely to push the outcome of the conflict toward stalemate rather than toward a clean victory for the Dems.
Nevertheless, the Republicans managed to overreach pretty disastrously this time. The interesting questions have to do with how and why they did so—and although Scheiber doesn't really put it this way, why they're likely to do so again in the future.
What this analysis missed is that even in an age of hyper-polarization and geographic segregation, there are some tactics that go too far, alienating even voters who are ideologically or politically sympathetic to the GOP. And, unfortunately for Republicans, one of those tactics was extortion. Going into the shutdown, more people opposed Obamacare than supported it. But the idea of shutting down the government or threatening a debt default to undo Obamacare was massively unpopular. Most polls showed roughly three times as many voters against the idea as in favor of it.

Worse, precisely because the House GOP was so insulated from public opinion—because the average GOP congressman is much more concerned about a Tea-Party challenger than a general-election opponent—conservative Republicans couldn’t see that this tactic was completely counterproductive. Which is to say, the very forces that made Republicans better able to withstand a public backlash drove them to pursue the one tactic guaranteed to produce a backlash so intense even they couldn’t withstand it.

On top of which—and this is the biggest difference between today and the mid-'90s—the Republican Party is itself deeply, perhaps irreparably, split. In the ‘90s, we heard rumblings that Bob Dole, the GOP Senate majority leader, was unhappy about Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth tactics. But there was nothing approaching the level of animosity that exists between today’s House and Senate Republicans, and between pragmatists and jihadis in the House. This time the divisions spilled into public view long before the shutdown started, and they only widened after that. As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, we no longer have a Democrat-versus-Republican showdown, as we did in the '90s. We have a Democrat versus Republican versus Tea Party free-for-all. And at times the poisonousness between sane Republicans and the jihadis overwhelms the contempt either side has for Democrats. [....]
On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias perceptively pointed out, the disagreements between the Republican right (those "pragmatists" mentioned by Scheiber) and the Republican ultra-right are mostly about political tactics. In terms of domestic issues (foreign policy is a slightly different matter) there is a pretty monolithic right-wing ideological consensus on substantive policies and goals.

The really key point is that the so-called "moderates" in the national Republican Party have been largely eliminated or marginalized, and the center of gravity in the party has been pushed so far to the right that people like McConnell or Boehner (and, lately, even some of the more intransigent right-wing extremists like Ryan or Cantor) start to look like "pragmatists" by comparison to the most ultra-right zealots. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, "Sometimes our right hand does not know what our far right hand is doing." However, to amend the metaphor a bit, this is a Frankenstein monster that people like McConnell and Boehner did a lot to help create and encourage.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how we ended up here: The Tea Partiers, high on their own apocalyptic fantasies, force the GOP down a strategically catastrophic path. For a few days, they are convinced that victory is at hand. The feedback they get from their constituents is overwhelmingly positive. The right-wing media urges them on. They are convinced providence is on their side. “This is about the happiest I’ve seen members in a long time because we’ve seen we’re starting to win this dialogue,” Michele Bachmann told Sean Hannity on Day Two of the shutdown.

At this point, the Tea Partiers are so convinced of their own impending success that sober Republicans, mainstream reporters, even liberals begin to wonder if there isn’t something to it—if they haven’t badly underestimated the public’s appetite for thuggery. At which point it all collapses. The polls trickle in and they are horrific. The pragmatic wing of the party is completely demoralized. It lashes out more violently than before. The national media both encourages and adds to their derision of conservatives. Suddenly every Republican in town is shopping his own terms of surrender. [....]
In short:
The problem for the GOP is that, as insulated as the House jihadis are from national trends, Senate Republicans and House pragmatists emphatically are not. When the approval rating for Republicans drops nationally, these people are badly exposed. They begin to fear for their jobs. They become desperate to cut a deal—any deal—that will end their political pain. And once they do—once there is a deal that a large chunk of Republicans either explicitly sign onto or tacitly endorse—then it is game over for the House. There is simply no House Republican leader who can resist a bill that many if not most Republicans want to see pass, a bill that has passed the Senate, and to which the only alternative is the complete annihilation of both the Republican Party and the global economy.
As I said, this scenario is not inherently implausible, and it may actually turn out to be correct.  But it may also prove to be excessively optimistic.  We'll find out pretty soon.  And even if this particular crisis is resolved along the lines that Scheiber suggests, that will just be a reprieve, and not a real solution to the very deep pathologies of our political system.  (Among other things, those "pragmatic" and allegedly "sane" Republicans have been doing enormous damage on their own.  And if the zealots of the Republican ultra-right are deprived of the opportunity to blow up the world economy this time around, they and their supporters will undoubtedly charge that they were stabbed in the back by a RINO leadership and will look for another chance to try again.)  But in the meantime, let's hope Scheiber's analysis is correct, because the alternatives look pretty terrible.

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub