Political Animal


October 20, 2012 8:28 AM Total Obstructionism Not a Guaranteed Winning Strategy for the Minority

By Ryan Cooper

When Lyndon Johnson took power as Minority Leader in the Senate in 1953, he reasoned that the way back to the majority was to accumulate a good record of accomplishment to run on. He made the Senate work at an unprecedented level of efficiency, and supported President Eisenhower to such an extent that he and his allies often accused Senate Republicans of insufficient support of the president. This worked well enough that the Democrats took the Senate majority in the 1954 midterms. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, is famous for this clip publicly announcing to become perhaps the overtly partisan Senate party leader in modern history:

Thus the recently smashed historical record for the number of filibusters. McConnell and company decided the percentage was in scorched-earth, nihilistic opposition; to filibuster absolutely everything President Obama proposed, and to further gum up with works wherever possible. The reasoning seemed to be that if nothing happened, ignorant voters would blame the president, and Republicans would win power by default.

That paid off in 2010, apparently, but that kind of extremist absolutism seems on the verge of backfiring. Even though Romney is barely ahead at the moment, Obama is still a slight favorite. If you look at the Senate, which should have been an easy Republican pickup, with Democrats defending way more tough races, the Dems have a probably better-than-even shot to keep control. For example, Claire McCaskill, who should have been doomed, is ahead in the polls due to running against a buffoonish crackpot.

In other words, Mitch McConnell and his brethren may have thrown a wrench into the gears of government for no benefit whatsoever even to their own narrow self-interest.

Johnson’s brand of bipartisan strategy is often cited as an example of a bygone era of cooperation driven by historically idiosyncratic circumstances, something which would be utterly unrealistic these days. But it’s not clear to me that it would actually fail in narrow electoral terms. People seem more than anything desperate for Congress to be efficient and responsive, rather than gridlocked and incapable of action.

I conclude then that Republican strategy is driven by rational calcuation, yes, but also by hatred and zealotry, and these two are increasingly at odds. The Republican party gets much of its power from an extremist base, easily whipped into a frenzy, that is increasingly out of contact with reality. It gives them an organizing edge, but is also driving them to total absolutism (can’t negotiate with socialism!) which at the least isn’t a guaranteed route to electoral victory.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • John B. on October 20, 2012 9:55 AM:

    Yes. Early in his term, Obama himself warned the Republican caucus this might happen: That if they engaged in such hyperbolic rhetoric--basically, if Obama is for it, it must perforce be bad--they'd end up not being able to get anything passed without looking like sell-outs. Which is exactly what has happened with things like extending the debt limit, and which has even caused them to [i]oppose[/i] tax cuts and programs that benefit veterans.

    Well. If they indeed fail to take control of the Senate, they can point their fingers at Todd Akin all they want; but really, they have only themselves to blame.

  • c u n d gulag on October 20, 2012 9:55 AM:

    Don't speak too soon.
    The Republicans might still gain control of the Senate.
    And, while it's not likely, 2+ weeks is an era in political time.

    And, despite their efforts at sabotaging the nations economy there, and in the House, the Republicans still have a better than even chance of keeping the majority in the lesser house.

    Hey, they've gone all in, betting the "houses" on a worse economy - and now with Issa's release of the names of some of the people in Libya who were on our side, apparently trying to inflame that country even further - they have nothing to lose.

    Sadly, they'll neither hang together, nor hang alone. Though hang they should.

  • thisdave on October 20, 2012 9:58 AM:

    Yes, zealotry and some hatred do play roles in McConnell & Co's machinations, as well as the reality that the Tea Party base and its heroes in Congress are leading the Republican Party now.

    But there is a rational motivation going on here: they want everyone to dislike and distrust the federal government. That's a fundamental goal of the Party. The gutter-level congressional approval rating may cause a few moments of discomfort at re-election time; otherwise, public disgust with Congress is actually a sign of success.

  • jhm on October 20, 2012 10:02 AM:

    Let me clear that I carry not one drop of water for Hon. Leader McConnell. He is as mendacious and hypocritical as they come. However, I don't think him stupid or incapable of grasping the points made here. One wonders how much choice the man has considering the calibre of GOP candidate that can pass muster in any given primary election. He's doubtless made acutely aware of this in the last cycle's Senate election in his own state.

  • j on October 20, 2012 10:08 AM:

    This is beside the point but will charges be placed against Reince Preebus for continually hiring people to throw away democratic voter registrations and other efforts to stop democrats from voting?

  • Hedda Peraz on October 20, 2012 10:43 AM:

    Democrats- bless their hearts!- still play by the rules.

    Republicans, on the other hand, to paraphrase "Back to the Future":
    "Rules? Where we are going, there ARE NO rules!"

  • Robert on October 20, 2012 10:56 AM:

    It is only about greed and money and the power that goes with it...If the corporations do take this election it only means they will guarantee all of these so-called leaders their wealth...it will be set in stone...the SCOTUS has finally seen the corruption but they have been bought out as well...we have seen the slow motion destruction of our democracy first hand...Osama bin Laden would be proud of the Kochs, the Adelsons, Pat Robertson, the list is long and ugly...they are doing what Al Qaeda has not been able to do...It is long past time to shut down wall street and the corruption...and start treating these criminals with the same intensity as they have shown to the Occupy Movement...or the same mercy the banks have shown in the foreclosure mess...They want war with us and have shown no mercy and no quarter...It is time for us to fight back...

  • Neildsmith on October 20, 2012 12:13 PM:

    I don't know.. I think it has been a smashing success. Millions of Americans were energized by their obstruction and hatred for the President so it kept the base engaged. The GOP is a "severely" conservative party. It was never going to attract skeptical moderates by being nice. It had to convince them first that progressives were a threat then make a show of standing up to them. It's a compelling argument if you are already skeptical of silly utopian progressives who don't really get how the world really works.

  • schtick on October 20, 2012 12:14 PM:

    People running for Congress should use that clip, along with the number of filibusters and clips of the obstructionists they are running against supporting all of this when they run their political ads, or on billboards so people will see it more often. They were obstructing America and the people of America pulling these stunts. People should be told that repeatedly.

  • Mimikatz on October 20, 2012 12:14 PM:

    It behooves each and every one of us to do what we can, in whatever way, to ensure that McConnell does not profit from this choice. The Dems MUST maintain control of the Senate and defeat as many GOPers as possible to reduce their power in the House. Electoral defeat is the only thing these unscrupulous hacks understand, and it is on us to deliver it to them.

  • Cugel on October 20, 2012 12:40 PM:

    Ten years ago Karl Rove liked to talk a lot about the "permanent Republican majority." Had George Bush really been willing to govern as a "compassionate conservative" he might well have cemented a anti-new deal coalition that would have made it virtually impossible for Democrats to recover in the foreseeable future.

    Two things prevented this: The war on Iraq and the attempt to privatize social security. It turned out that Bush and the Republicans never intended to govern as "moderates" -- something than every liberal predicted in 2000, but which millions of useful idiots refused to believe. Then to add insult to injury rampant right-wingers launched the war on women's rights and the racist "papers please" immigration "reform" effort.

    At least until Bush rubbed their faces in Iraq, Katrina, SS privatization, massive budget deficits and the worst economic collapse in 50 years. Republicans learned NOTHING from their failures and have doubled-down on all their policies.

    Thus, today they're desperate to win at all costs because they realize that far from a "permanent majority" they are almost locked into a permanent minority status. They've hopelessly alienated Latinos and can do nothing about this because their rabid nativist base won't permit them to support a Dream Act that gives "amnesty" to illegals.

    And they can't moderate their positions without causing a backlash from the Tea Party hate mongers on the right.

  • TCinLA on October 20, 2012 12:41 PM:

    What's going to be crucial is for Reid to make good on his promise to reform the filibuster with a rules change the first day of the new Senate session. They have to end the filibuster. Period. No more "we need to keep it for when we're the minority." If they end it and start accomplishing things, that will be a better guarantee of keeping the majority than anything else.

  • BJ smith on October 20, 2012 12:42 PM:

    If this country rewards those rats that have voted against their own country for four years it will be a travesty, giving them even more power to wield their hatred should be unthinkable to everyone.Even more so when they are trying to do so by scurilous lying by mouth & cheating in the voting booth.

  • sjw on October 20, 2012 1:04 PM:

    My sense is that the Republicans sensed a grave danger with Obama, namely, a president whose agenda would be so popular that it would guarantee Democratic majorities for a long time and push the country farther down the road to (European) "socialism." In other words, he'd be a kind of 21st-century FDR. To stymie Obama and to save their asses, they came up with this uber-obstructionist strategy. And it has worked pretty well insofar as at least they have a chance of winning the presidency and holding on to the Senate: an empowered Obama, on the other hand, would have made that impossible. As commenters above have pointed out, what messed things up for McConnell et al. was the Tea Party, which has forced Romney to take lousy positions on a variety of issues and foisted lousy candidates for the Senate on the RNC.

  • beejeez on October 20, 2012 1:12 PM:

    The principal reason behind the GOP's obstructionism has nothing to do with legislative and ideological goals, let alone the interests of the country: It's simple survival. The more Democrats win, the more the country improves. The more the country improves, the more Democrats are rewarded in elections.

  • JD on October 20, 2012 1:45 PM:

    One of the more hopeful articles I've seen. I do agree with sjw that a lot of thes obstruction was based on both the popularity of Obama's agenda and the appeal of Obama as a left-center unifying figure who might seriously undercut the traditional Republican agenda of divide and conquer. Hopefully there are a few Republicans who are still active in the party who truly possess that virtue that the GOP professes but does not practice: patriotism.

  • Diane Rodriguez on October 20, 2012 2:22 PM:

    LBJ was unquestionably the most powerful negotiator in modern times. However, he wasn't bipartisan in the sense of "let’s all get along". He used everything at his disposal to get what he wanted. His days in Congress were not filled with introductions of landmark legislation but rather generating information and markers to use for his own benefit. Crudeness was a part of his character. He never hesitated to use personal information and he operated brilliantly within the framework of his time. We are no longer in that time. Lobbyist has largely assumed the negotiation role and the media keeps the embarrassing personal stuff front and center. Doris Kearns Goodwin "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream" is the definitive biography, not to mention a great read.

    Initially, the O'Connell obstructionism was a push back against the phenomena of Obama - the first black president who had intelligence, charisma and character. Any “first”, but especially this one, is a powerful force. The avenues of attack were limited to race, which was a dumb move at that time. When the extremist began the loud bullying, racist rhetoric, the old guard, like Boehner and O'Connell were in danger. They had to play along or lose power.

    Everything is now in play, racism, misogyny, hyper-hypocrisy, but primarily breathtaking ignorance. The Republican Party has allowed the bullies to have the loudest voice and now Republicans have a fine line to walk as they are painted with the same brush of ignorance. Their only avenue is unfettered lying and they picked a candidate who is a master at it. Democrats will be struggling to drag us back to sanity for a long time. If the composition of the Supreme Court tips further to the right, there will be no return to sanity for decades.

  • DJ on October 20, 2012 2:32 PM:

    Doris Kearns Goodwin "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream" is the definitive biography, not to mention a great read.

    Well, Robert Caro's series might be even better. YMMV.

  • Anonymous on October 20, 2012 2:48 PM:

    McTurtle's legislative goals were to end the ACA, end bailouts, cut spending, and shrink the size and scope of government. All of which, other than ACA repeal, will happen on January 1, 2013 unless Congress acts.

    We'll see if McTurtle wants us to jump over the fiscal cliff and solve the deficit problem with massive cuts and consequent reduction in the size of government, or that he and his party have been abject liars about their priorities. I know where I'm placing my bet.

  • Rick B on October 20, 2012 3:28 PM:

    @beejeez 1:12 PM

    You're correct. The conservatives saw that demographics were against them and that if they could not gain control of voting they were going to lose the ability to win national elections. Their effort to go full-throttle super-conservatives was an act of desperation.

    It's analogous to the reasons the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when they did in 1941. They saw their own international power declining and that of the Americans rising, so they felt they had to conduct a desperation attack to stop the trend. But for the Battle of Midway they might have had a chance to gain from it.

    The U.S. political conservative vs sanity wars have not seen the sanity party win a "Battle of Midway" yet. Obama's win in 2008 might have been the case except for the collapse of Wall Street and world banking. The Great Recession has prevented a clear reversal of conservative policies from being implemented. That's why 2010 was so bad and why 2012 is so close.

    The conservatives have also been encouraged by their ability to redistrict so many states and by the Citizen's United permission to flood the election with partisan money. But their desperation shows in their nationwide effort to rig the vote. They really do see this year as "now or never."

    Have you noticed that in addition to the increased percentage of minorities, the young voters are not voting conservative? Time and the trends are against them. The only hope left for conservatives is to win enough power in 2012 to implement a semi-authoritarian government that restricts voting to conservatives and the upper class in the Southern model. Romney's lies and the fundamentalist's desire for religious domination of government represent their desperation. They have nothing else to support their power.

  • Zorro for the Common Good on October 20, 2012 11:42 PM:

    The irony of McConnell's comment is that making Obama a one-term president is NOT actually his No. 1 priority, but he had to say it in service of his actual top priority, which is maintaining his position as leader of the GOP Senate caucus and, more importantly, as Kentucky's senior senator.

    McConnell may be evil, and he may look suspiciously a hard-shelled reptile, but he's not stupid. He's up for election in 2014, and he saw what happened to his hand-picked Establishment candidate Trey Greyson in the 2010 KY Senate primary. He also knows that, much as Cantor is sharpening his teeth for Boehner's chair, DeMint is angling for his. If he cuts deals with Obama, the base will take him down faster than you can say "Delaware witch".

    In fact, you could argue that it's actually in McConnell's interest that the GOP not defeat Obama this year. He was at the height of his powers from '08-'10, when everything the Dems wanted to do had to circumvent his filibusters, and he strong-armed moderates like Snowe and Collins into opposing any compromises on ACA. (The past two years, that locus has shifted to Boehner and the House). But in a 2013 where Romney is the top Republican in Washington and McConnell has a 51-seat majority, he's actually under pressure to actually deliver on the GOP's promises, which means cutting deals with the moderates and Democrats, which means pissing off the base.

  • LosGatosCA on October 21, 2012 2:32 AM:

    Two critical differences for LBJ vs McConnell:

    1. Ike was a war hero while Obama is an angry anti-colonialist Kenyan who is a Black Mooslim. Cooperation with Ike was required, cooperation with Obama is not.

    2. There was a national consensus on national defense (anti-communism) and the Democrats were then as now on the right side of history, while the Republicans now are on the wrong side of history on virtually every issue of consequence and certainly every inconsequential issue. Even national security issues are divisive today.

    LBJ was trying to work with people in the opposing party who saw his role as legitimate. McConnell is forced by circumstances as well as preferences to view Democrats as illegitimate.

  • zandru on October 21, 2012 11:19 AM:

    thisdave makes some good points. Let me add, for over 30 years, the Repubs have painted "gummint" as the number one problem. They run on the principal that government can't do anything right, can't help anyone, can't create jobs; furthermore, anything done by government is by definition bad, so the less the government does, the better. Gridlock is great!

    They have lowered expectations.

    For the most part, people in the US no longer think of their government as being a meaningful force in their lives. If nothing else, it's like some kind of natural disaster or vengeful god that strikes without warning, out of the blue. Little point in voting; "they're all the same." Meet the old boss; same as the new boss.

    This prevailing US attitude, plus the timely "Citizens United Not Timid" decision by the Supreme Court, gives the federal government to the top 1% of the top 1%.

    It's feudalism all over again. That's what's at stake here. And incredibly, CAPTCHA sez "pleadyiV stake" ...