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.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.