The Failure Option

Josh Marshall puzzles over what’s changed in American politics to make the 60 vote threshold so difficult to overcome, and argues that “we’re also deluding ourselves if we do not figure in a large role for larger structural changes in our politics. Simply put, the broader climate of political polarization in the country — a socio-political reality than transcends parliamentary rules — creates pressures for party coherence and party discipline that makes the resort to these tactics more and more the norm.”

There’s something to that. But I do think it’s worth emphasizing how one-sided efficacious minority party obstruction has been. The Bush administration wasn’t able to get its agenda through congress unscathed, but fundamentally they did achieved their main goals in terms of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, substantially altering Medicare in 2003, and of course securing support for the invasion of Iraq and 2002. A big part of the difference here is that the post-1994 Republican Party appears to believe that, as a matter of political strategy, it makes sense to try to deal demoralizing defeats to the Democrats. Thus whereas in the past you might have a few dozen conservative pragmatists in the House of Representatives willing to say something like “I think your bill has a lot of problems; if you change in this way and that way and throw in a slice of pork I’ll vote for it” you now have zero such legislators.

From a policy point of view, this is too bad. It results in legislation that needs to cater to each and every picayune concern of each and every Democrat in an undue and inefficient manner. The problem, however, is that it’s by no means clear that the “make Obama fail” theory of politics is wrong. Had a few dozen House Republicans been willing to sign on to ACES or health reform in exchange for some substantive changes, then that would have (a) given moderate Democrats more political cover to vote “yes” if they wanted to and (b) given the Democratic leadership more leeway to permit vulnerable members to vote “no” if they felt they had to. Result—fewer good targets for the midterms while simultaneously making Obama and Pelosi look like more moderate, more bipartisan figures.

Maximal obstruction, in other words, seems to make sense. Tyler Cowen theorizes, plausibly, that public anxiety about the deficit is a proxy for a sense of public anxiety about dysfunctional politics. But if the minority can make politics dysfunctional and then turn public anxiety about dysfunction into a rebuke for the incumbent majority, then we’re going to be trapped in a cycle in which politics is dysfunctional indeed.


Social Security! Social Security! The key point here is that Bush barely got any Republican support for Social Security privatization.

The administration also failed in its immigration reform push, but there they had a bunch of Democratic support and a ton of Republican opposition. There are zero examples of Bush-era policies that failed despite near-unanimous GOP congressional support.

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