Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is "breaking the fever" Obama's fever dream?

Brendan Nyhan thinks that Obama is blowing smoke when he suggests that his reelection will "break the fever" of reflexive and unyielding GOP opposition to everything he proposes, and when he avers that change will come from outside Washington, via citizen activism, rather than from inside. I find Nyhan's debunking unconvincing on several fronts.  Here's the core argument:
In reality, while Obama will have increased leverage in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” scenario, there’s little reason to think the upward trend in legislative polarization will relent any time soon, or that Obama can magically change public opinion from the bully pulpit or force Congress to act through outside pressure. Similarly, it’s not clear that a president’s re-election creates especially strong incentives for the opposition party to start compromising. It’s true, for instance, that Bill Clinton cut a budget deal with Republicans in 1997, but he was also impeached in 1998. Similarly, George W. Bush faced far more relentless and effective opposition from Democrats in Congress during his second term than his first. Despite John Kerry’s loss, Democrats killed Bush’s proposal to add private accounts to Social Security in the 109th Congress and subsequently won a landslide victory in the 2006 midterm elections. 
First, the points that Nyhan concedes -- that  a reelected Obama would have the whip hand in fiscal cliff negotiations, and that Clinton cut a budget deal (largely reflecting his priorities) after his reelection --  go a long way toward making Obama's argument for him. "Breaking the fever" is not primarily, or initially, about about producing comity between the parties; it's about changing the opposition's incentives. Clinton's reelection did do that; the fact that he later handed the Republicans a sword to gore him in the person of Monica Lewinsky does not negate the leverage he won or the relatively rational compromises he was able to strike with a GOP Congress -- yielding balanced budgets that Gingrich boasted about in the GOP primaries as if he'd been Clinton's right-hand man. Moreover, had Clinton not dallied in the Oval Office, Republicans would have lacked a massive, er, stimulus to total warfare, and polarization may not have advanced to its subsequent apotheosis under Obama.

Second, Obama is not proposing to change public opinion via the bully pulpit. He's promising to marshal public opinion that's already on his side, in favor of a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction that raises new revenue by taxing the rich, and against radical cuts to domestic discretionary spending and voucherization of Medicare.  Obama already flexed this muscle, with some success, in winning extensions of the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, and the current low rate for student loans.

It's true that rallying public opinion and asking those supporting his position to call Congress failed in the summer of 2011 to get Obama a budget deal that yielded new revenue. But that was because Obama backed himself into negotiating under threat of national default at the debt ceiling deadline. With the leverage on his side post-election, thanks to the pending expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the  "sequestration" defense cuts pending for 2013 and beyond, rallying public opinion may be more effective -- a second scissor blade paired with that leverage. (Incidentally, Nyhan's link embedded in the words "magically change" goes to Ezra Klein's related argument that Obama can't help channel outside pressure for change -- another argument I tried to rebut).

Third, the increased opposition that Bush faced in his second term does not advance Nyhan's case.  In his first term, Bush did not face anything like stonewall that has confronted Obama; his party gained ground in the 2002 midterms, and for a long season he swept all before him, with rooted opposition looking unpatriotic and Tom Daschl casting himself as a patriotic partner.  In 2004, there was major unease about the conduct of the war in Iraq, Democrats missed unseating Bush by a whisker, and Bush promptly proposed a radical restructuring of Social Security though his party held only modest majorities in both houses of Congress. The tide was primed to turn. Democratic opposition was reinforced as Bush's setbacks multiplied, and then validated when Democrats took back Congress in 2006.  In any case, polarization in U.S. politics is mainly the sound of one hand not clapping, and that hand is the GOP's. Democratic opposition never approached the extremities of the GOP stonewalling in the Obama era. The question of "fever break" is a question of whether or when GOP extremism will moderate.

And on that front, Nyhan does not consider a possible shift in longer term incentives that Obama is implicitly promising. Republican stonewalling was massively rewarded in the 2010 midterms, when unemployment was near its post-recession peak, but that may have been a final hectic flush for a strategy in its death throes. If Obama wins reelection, the GOP will have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and will be facing an electorate in which its base is shrinking and its current policies fail spectacularly with Hispanics, women and the young, to say nothing of African Americans. The gravitational pull of the evolving electorate could well pull the party back toward the center at last, further tugged by Obama's leverage in the lee of the fiscal cliff. That is what Obama is betting on -- while also signalling that standing up to the GOP works better than trying to mollify them, and that he's going to use the relative popularity of his core positions (change comes from you) to maximize the leverage afforded by the fiscal cliff.  And if he's right, his initial promise to change the way Washington works may be at least partially fulfilled. Polarization may prove to be a cyclical ill rather than a permanent accoutrement of decline.

Update: via James Fallows, a bit of indirect support from political scientist Samuel Popkin (Fallows' emphasis):
Even if Romney does win, a civil war among Republicans seems inevitable.  Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham have already moved away from the once-popular, absolutist no-taxes-ever pledges, and in every state with a sizeable Hispanic population (save Arizona) more centrist Republicans are pushing for sensible immigration reform.  Suddenly, some Republican candidates in battleground states are trumpeting bipartisanship and compromise and distancing themselves from the more extreme positions of Romney and Ryan. 
Related: Ezra Klein misreads Obama on "change"


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