Republicans gained by obstructing, Democrats lost by reaching out

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Feb 22, 2010 at 12:53

The theory is that if Democrats make a show out of reaching out to Republicans, but Republicans slap Democrats down every time and obstruct for the sake of obstructing, then Democrats will gain politically.

The reality is that Republicans gain in the polls if Democrats fail to pass legislation that improves people's lives, no matter the political theater of obstruction.

Here is the theory, as first presented by Mark Schmidt two weeks before the Iowa caucuses:

But let's take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment.

Whether it was part of some eleven-dimensional chess plan or not, thirteen months not the Obama administration, this appears to be pretty much what Democrats have done.  Democrats have bent over backward to at least try and make it appear as though they are reaching out to Republicans.  And, following the script, Republicans have done a good job of obstructing Democrats for the sake of obstructing Democrats.

The problem for Democrats is that their plan resulted in a massive improvement in the Republican electoral situation, rather than improving their own:

Key electoral indicators, Election Day 2008 and now
Indicator Election Day 2008 Current Republican Gain
Party ID D +7% D +2.5% 4.5%
House ballot D +9.7 D +0.5% 9.2%
Dem Favorability +7% -5% +12%
GOP favorablility -9% -6% 3%
Over the last fifteen and a half months, Democrats have lost 4-5% in net partisan self-identification, around 9% in the National House ballot, and around 15% in net party favorability.  And, Mitch McConnell is still saying Republicans will obstruct legislation that they will ultimately vote for:

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on "Fox News Sunday" that Republicans "may well" support the jobs bill, though that doesn't necessarily mean the GOP will help Democrats on Monday's procedural vote.

Republicans are paying no political price for their obstruction.  Quite to the contrary, they are actually reaping a political reward from it.  The Democratic plan of delaying legislation in order to make a big, public show of reaching out to Republicans was a miserable failure.

This is demonstrative not of bad execution of the Democratic plan to reach out to Republicans and make them look like obstructionists, but rather of a faulty theory behind that plan.  The problem isn't that Democrats haven't done enough to reach out to Republicans, or to get out the message about Republican obstruction.  The problem is that the public doesn't care about political process, which makes attempts to publically reach out to Republicans useless political theater that does nothing except delay important legislation.  The public wants their lives to improve, and doesn't care about process stories or the 24-hour news cycle.

More in the extended entry.

Chris Bowers :: Republicans gained by obstructing, Democrats lost by reaching out
Health care reform is an excellent example of this.  Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus passed his health reform legislation on October 13, 2009, 74 days later than any other committee chair (July 31st, 2009).  The reason for this 74 day delay was that Max Baucus decided to negotiate with a  six-person bipartisan group consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats.  Even though the chief Republican negotiator in that group, Charles Grassley, said he was always opposed to the health care bill, that he wouldn't vote for it even if he received every concession he wanted, and said the health care bill would kill your grandmother, Bacuus kept reaching out to Republicans.  Further, another of the chief negotiators, Mike Enzi, said he was talking to Democrats only to delay the bill.

Instead of this political obstruction hurting Republicans, it hurt Democrats.  And badly.  The 74 days that Baucus wasted would have easily been enough to pass health reform before the January 19th special election in Massachusetts.  Democrats looked ineffective in passing legislation, and kept an unpopular bill in the headlines for much, much longer than it needed to be.

The reason this didn't hurt Republicans is because the country ultimately does not care about political process.  In an open-ended CBS poll taken just before President Obama's inauguration, only 2% of the country cited fixing partisanship as the task they would most like to see President Obama accomplish.  Further, that poll is the only time that "partisanship" has ever registered as the top problem facing the country for more than 1% of the population.,

The country doesn't tune into process stories in the news, either.  Five years ago, during the ultimate process fight in the Senate--the Republican attempt to get rid of the filibuster--only 34% of the country said they followed the story "very closely" or "somewhat closely."   This helps to explain why only 26% of the country knows that it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.  Most of the country has no idea why Democrats don't just pass whatever they want.

The problem with the theory of change employed by Democrats, and articulated by Mark Schmidt, is that it assumes everyone in the country is a political junkie familiar with congressional process and glued to the daily news cycle.  In realty, the public never lists process issues among the top issues facing the country, and wants the party in charge of the government to help fix (or at least not exacerbate) the problems they face in their everyday lives.

The country never cared about political theater.  As such, putting political theater--aka, making a show of reaching out to Republicans because you know they will reject you--at the center of your strategy was bound to fail.  All it did was delay, water down, and block important legislation that could have made people's lives better.  Had Democrats instead made using whatever political process they could to make people's lives better the center of their strategy, they would be a lot better off politically right now.

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Just Health Care? (0.00 / 0)
Does this really apply to anything besides health care?  The only other big thing this past year was the stimulus bill, which obviously passed as helped, even if it was too small.  Unemployment benefits and such have been extended at various times, as was the popular cash for clunkers program.

Republicans are, of course, obstructing lots of other places, like getting offices filled.  But I'm not sure the reaching out component plays into this much.  Obviously Democrats need to do a better job at the outrage thing, which is perhaps is the point, but simply isn't in our DNA (so it seems).

We focus on politics all the time here, but I'm unsure the reaching out and obstructing is as relevant as it seems.  It is a big deal with the health care bill, but that will soon be passed via reconciliation anyway.

Perhaps there is much more Democrats could/would be doing if the filibuster was gone, but I'm not sure.  We need to get rid of it anyway, for a variety of reasons, but I'm not sure the dynamic has matter much beyond the one really big bill everyone is focused on.

Republicans obstruct Democrats; Democrats obstruct Democrats (4.00 / 4)
This is what happened. The Republicans served their base well and now they are reaping the benefits. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, served their wealthy donors and not the people who voted for them. By pretending to serve those who voted for them without enacting any real change, the President and the Congress now risk a massive Democratic voter blowback.

The Democratic party and the President's administration chose to pretend. Now that the pretense is seen for what it is, there is no choice but enact change and do it in less than a year.

The President is probably not risking his presidency with his healthcare incrementalism, but he has most certainly thrown the Democratic Congress under the bus. Personally, I think it's too little too late.

There is a lot of (4.00 / 1)
poor execution.

While I agree that the entire premise is flawed. That doesn't excuse the poor execution of the strategy.

My main problems with the execution are

First Openness: Most of the trading was done out of sight. It is hard to press intransigence when nobody knows about it.

Next Fairness: People really do want some compromise. But that takes two sides. The Republicans have not been confronted with the basic choice in a compromise. We'll give you this what are you going to give us in return.

While it is a weak strategy, it was implemented very poorly.

Truism rarely honored: Good bills make for good politics (4.00 / 7)
The country never cared about political theater.  As such, putting political theater--aka, making a show of reaching out to Republicans because you know they will reject you--at the center of your strategy was bound to fail.  All it did was delay, water down, and block important legislation that could have made people's lives better.  Had Democrats instead made using whatever political process they could to make people's lives better the center of their strategy, they would be a lot better off politically right now.

Couldn't agree more.

I thought that Mark Schmitt's argument for Obama back then was very clever, but very, very wrong.

It was clear to many of us that bipartisanship was a tactic to be used only when one had to. That it almost always results in worse legislation -- look at the Kennedy/Kassebaum bill which created COBRA, but had no cost controls in it or requirement that the employer keep paying for at least some of it.  Not worth much when you can't afford to pay for your insurance.  It was hailed as solving the portability issue and the tie to employer based health care...barely scratched the surface.

It was also clear to anyone who paid any attention that Republicans would obstruct.  And that giving in to that would either make you look weak but in actuality it would make you ineffective.

And it was much more necessary to deliver on needed fundamental change than to look open while doing it.

Changing people's lives I always thought was many multiples more important than changing how the political process LOOKED.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

That Mark Schmitt (4.00 / 7)
piece -- pretty much the ur-document of the 11-Dimensional Chess Theory of Change -- was self-evidently weak when he posted it, undercut by everything any thinking person should know about power. If nothing else, the first year plus of Obama's administration has thoroughly discredited such arguments.

Many people in the netroots, and John Edwards, deserve credit for calling bullshit in real time.  

Ah Yes, I Remember What I Said At The Time (4.00 / 7)
In my diary, "Obama: Does A "Theory of Change" Explanation Make Sense?", I began by saying:

In my earlier diary, "Obama-Yearning For Dixiecrats?" I pointed out that the lost era of civility and inter-party cooperation that Obama evokes and hopes to return to was markedly less polarized in large part because of the Southern Democrats-Dixiecrats-who were bitterly opposed to Civil Rights, and functioned as a de facto third party, triangulating between Republicans and Northern Democrats.  I now what to consider the "So what?" option:  So what if Obama is invoking a Rodney King theory of harmony based on cheefully misconstruing our past, so long as it works?

And really bent over backwards to see if it could possibly make sense.  Skipping down almost to the end, I quoted Schmitt:

The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won't be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put 'em on a committee. Then define the committee's mission your way.

And then responded:

Now, this, quite frankly, could be a brilliant tactic.  But not in a vacuum.  Without other actions to take on the rightwing noise machine, it would be nothing more than a brilliant failure.  The conservatives would walk out, go onto Limbaugh's show, onto O'Reilly, heck, onto Matthews and Russert, and denounce Obama as  "another partisan Democrat just like all the rest" who "stacked the deck against us, and against the American people."

In short, I just don't see how you fight and win a tactical struggle against a strategic all-out thermonuclear war.  It just ain't gonna happen.

This wasn't hard to see at all.

It was hard not to see.

It required willfull blindness.

It still does.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
To be fair, that Mark Schmitt piece was very insightful (0.00 / 0)
and it, combined with echoing of that pro-Obama argument from a few Obama-supporting friends of mine, was the reason that I gave Senator Obama a lot more credit than I should have, in retrospect. (I still voted for John Edwards, to my never-ending self-pride.)

I was always skeptical of this argument, however, and it seems that the application of this tactic has been executed poorly and, to the extent that it has been executed, has simply failed spectacularly.  It hasn't been executed well because there hasn't been the total transparency that was promised, and because the people who are up to no good behind closed doors seem to all be Democrats. (Obama, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, etc.) I never bought into the idea that anti-reform conservatives would automatically look bad, or (as Chris argues) that people would even care, and it seems that to the extent that conservatives have been brought into the discussion and allowed to make their case, they've outmaneuvered and outargued the Democrats at every turn.

In any case, President Obama's approach, whatever it was supposed to be, was a bust.  Obama should know he's in trouble when he makes me so proud of having chose a dubiously liberal slick who cheated on his terminally ill wife over the likes of him.

[ Parent ]
It's all about the money (4.00 / 7)
Democrats need a fig leaf to justify doing what corporate money wants them to do.  Reaching out to Republicans for bipartisanship is the result.

Exactly. (4.00 / 3)
We don't WANT to give our golfing partners and campaign donors huge sums of money, those eeevil Republicans are making us do it! We're just trying to be "civil" and "reach out."

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
I'ts Not ALL About The Money (4.00 / 3)
There's also the "cool kids" factor.

And, of course, the cool kids have all the money.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Dang, Chris! (0.00 / 0)
I've been meaning to revisit that whole "theory of change" debate for several weeks now, but other things just keep popping up & distracting me.

Well, no matter, there's plenty more to be said about it for me to weigh in this weekend.

I have my notes.

And will be taking more.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

They're either delusional or corrupt. (4.00 / 1)
Possibly (probably) both.

The delusional version is as you've noted in your post.  The corruption version is they went the path of reaching out to Republicans not because they thought it would be good politically with voters, but because they knew it wouldn't accomplish anything, which would be good with their lobbyist and big corporate buddies, and they thought they could get away with hiding behind "Republican obstructionism."

The reason they didn't get away with it is just as you said.  The public doesn't care.  They saw Republicans run things into the ground when they had control, and they see Democrats failing to fix things while they're in control.  And not just failing to fix things, but apparently not even trying.  I mean, if Democrats showed they were at least trying, I think the public would forgive them for failing, and Dems would at least be holding even electorally.

Further, even though Dems are in control, by trying to hide behind Republican obstructionism, they are effectively saying that Republicans are the ones still in control.  Since the only way Republicans could be in control despite a Democratic majority is if the Democrats let them be in control, the Democratic argument for why they can't accomplish anything is effectively that they're letting Republicans control things.  This is a stupid fucking argument to be making, and leads to the obvious question: if Democrats are going to let Republicans run things, why vote for Democrats?  And all your "but the Republicans are worse" arguments don't matter squat.  Who's worse: the idiot, or the fool who lets the idiot run things?

This is why the Dems are polling so bad, now.  The base can't answer that question without wanting to commit grisly acts of self-mutilation, so they don't answer it at all.  I.e. they're choosing not to vote.

And there's very little we can do about it.  If the Dems are delusional (see Obama), they'll refuse to recognize reality, so they won't change their strategy, no matter what we say.  If they're corrupt (see Lieberman, Nelson, et. al.), they care more about their own personal wealth than about electoral victory, so losing elections doesn't really bother them.

We, as citizens, have only three real legs of power.  Money, time, and votes.  Our money has effectively been nullified with the recent SCOTUS ruling re: Citizens United vs. FEC.  Our votes are the ultimate ruling, and as such, they shouldn't be put in play except under the most extreme circumstances.  That leaves time.

The only way we're going to be able to persuade any of them is by denying them our time as volunteers.  This is difficult, but it's all we've really got.  Our time as volunteers--calling, GOTV, writing letters, and so on--is something they can't replace.  At least not without paying people, and that would be quite possibly the stupidest thing they could do.  The attack ads write themselves.

So, can we start pressuring incumbent Dems to get things done by denying them our time as campaign volunteers?  Can we please start using our power to get what we want?  Pretty please?  I mean, I can do this myself, but if it's just me, that's not enough to accomplish anything.  We have to work together and be unified about it.

Or would you rather just sign another sternly worded letter petition?

Health insurance is not health care.
If you don't fight, you can't win.
Never give up. Never Surrender.
Watch out for flying kabuki.

The most frustrating thing (0.00 / 0)
is that this was all so, so predictable.

It's not chess; it's power politics (0.00 / 0)
Chris, thanks for another thoughtful and well-argued post.

Here's an alternate analysis that, I think, also fits the facts as we know them.  (Note:  I'm not saying my analysis is right---it may well be wrong.  But, given what's known about Obama's community organizing background, I can easily imagine his strategy on health care reform being something like the following.)

1)  Moderate Republicans were all but eliminated in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and Republicans as a caucus decided on a strategy of unified opposition to Obama's administration.

2)  Realizing this, Obama also had to reckon with the fact that congressional Democrats (particularly Senate Democrats...including powerful committee chairmen like Baucus) were much less united and---for a variety of reasons---wanted some Republican support for health care reform.

3)  Obama said last spring he wanted floor votes on health care reform before the summer recess, but in the end, he did not have the power to force Baucus to move the bill out of the Finance committee.  (In a parliamentary government he might; but we don't have a parliamentary government.)

4)  Obama's consistent and persistent openness to Republican ideas means that once (if!) matters come to a vote on health care reform, Republicans either have to compromise with Obama (which would infuriate their base), or be seen as "the Party of No" (which would anger, or at least annoy, political moderates).

5)  If Republicans unite in opposition, then Obama needs a united Democratic caucus in the House and in the Senate to pass health care reform.  Here again, Obama's consistent and persistent "bipartisan" stance helps.  Democrats---if they unite---can win credit for passing health care reform, and they can campaign against the "do nothing" Republicans.

Final point:  The Democrats' numbers would be down (and will be down) from Nov. 2008 regardless of what happens with health care reform.  10% unemployment is bad for whoever's in charge.

Really every woman knows about reaching out when her man is abusive (0.00 / 0)
and how well it works.

I guess Obama needs a relationship with a man to understand all this. I just know the men around him dominate him psychologically. He never learned about all that in his family. His mom and grandmother were the smart and dominate ones. Poor Michelle tries not to be and seethes.

And Barbie doll Laura Bush just didn't care. Just hand me another romance novel dear.

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