A Government That Can't Govern

Over the weekend, our friend Jonathan Bernstein wrote an interesting post discussing the point, not uncommon on the left but nonetheless true, that the problem with our politics today isn't "polarization" or "Washington" but the Republican Party. His argument is basically that the GOP is caught in a series of overlapping vicious cycles that not only make governing impossible for everyone, but become extraordinarily difficult to break out of. As the base grows more extreme, it demands more ideological purity from primary candidates, leading to more ideological officeholders for whom obstruction of governance is an end in itself, marginalizing moderates and leaving no one with clout in the party to argue for a more sensible course, and in each subsequent election those demanding more and more purity become the loudest voices, and on and on. John Hunstman would probably tell you that he would have had a better chance of beating Barack Obama than Mitt Romney (who spent so much time pandering to the right) did, but nobody in the GOP cares what John Huntsman thinks.

There's one point Bernstein makes that shows just how serious this situation is: "Perhaps the biggest cause is the perverse incentives created by the conservative marketplace. Simply put, a large portion of the party, including the GOP-aligned partisan press and even many politicians, profit from having Democrats in office. Typically, democracies 'work' in part because political parties have strong incentives to hold office, which causes them once they win to try hard to enact public policy that keeps people satisfied with their government. That appears to be undermined for today's Republicans." It's often noted that some people on each side benefit when the other side is in power. For instance, magazines like this one. When there's a Republican in the White House, liberal magazines tend to get more subscribers, as liberals get angry at the President and become more interested in reading about everything he's doing wrong. The same is true of conservative magazines when there's a Democratic president. The boosting of certain people's fortunes when the other side is in power stretches through ideological media to some political figures. For instance, Dennis Kucinich became a national figure not long after September 11 when he started giving speeches criticizing the War on Terror, tapping into the frustration many people on the left felt.

So George W. Bush was very good for Dennis Kucinich, and you'll notice that once Barack Obama was elected, Kucinich faded from view. But Kucinich never had the ability to push the Democratic party along a particular path. The people on the right who benefit from being out of power, on the other hand, are much more influential within the party. And today, there are many people within the GOP who like the current situation pretty well. It isn't that they have no governing agenda that they'd implement if given the chance, but just obstructing the Democratic agenda is going quite well for them. Rush Limbaugh and Rand Paul and even Mitch McConnell are perfectly happy with how things are going for them right now. The basic urge to get power runs up against all the incentives now built into the GOP that make getting power more difficult. Officeholders could change their tune a bit and make the Republican party more popular, but they're not going to do it if it means they're more likely to get booted in a primary.

So we could find ourselves endlessly trapped in the situation we're in now. Democrats keep winning presidential elections because the Republican Party is repellent to a majority of Americans. The geographic distribution of the American population nevertheless makes it possible for Republicans to hold on to the House, and at least control enough of the Senate to grind things to a halt by filibustering everything (and Democrats are too frightened to change the filibuster rules). With the exception of the occasional bill here and there that Republicans get intimidated into letting go through, governing pretty much ceases, with the exception of whatever the President can accomplish via regulation and executive agency actions (those agencies that the Republicans don't manage to hamstring, that is). And there you have it: a government that can't govern.

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