Jonathan Chait

Unconvincing Centrist Warnings To The GOP

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The main thrust of the post-election commentary is going to be that Democrats governed too far to the left and are paying a price. But there's going to be a subs-strand of mainstream commentary, represented here by Gerald Seib, warning Republicans not to be too partisan or they'll alienate:

a legion of independent voters, who swung to Mr. Obama in 2008 but are swinging back to Republicans with a vengeance this year. These voters, while moderately conservative, aren't terribly ideological. Their principal frustration with Washington, broadly speaking, is that it simply doesn't solve problems. In one sign of that, a new Bloomberg News poll finds that 80% of those surveyed said they want the parties to "work together even if it means compromising some principles."

And two years of pure gridlock in Washington may not go down quite so well with that part of the coalition. Indeed, Mr. McConnell's comment opened the door for White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to declare that, whatever else voters say next week, they won't be declaring that "they want to see the process bogged down and mired in more partisan political games."

But is there any evidence that voters will push Republicans for gridlock? Polls show that the public is far more inclined to believe that President Obama wants to cooperate with Republicans (72%) than to believe Republicans want to cooperate with Obama (46%). That hasn't hurt the Republicans. Moreover, research suggests that voters tend to hold the president responsible for political outcomes, meaning that gridlock and partisanship will make voters more likely to toss Obama. Republicans may put themselves at risk by taking unpopular votes, but creating electoral gridlock is all political upside.

Seib's view is symptomatic of establishment thinking. While misguided, the worldview is consistent. The mainstream view is that voters carefully punish parties for veering too far from centrism and bipartisanship -- indeed, if you lose an election, it is almost by definition because you have abandoned the center. Thus they believe all the political incentives push the parties toward cooperation, and they ignore those incentives at their peril. Naturally, they're skeptical of efforts to reform the filibuster, which allows minority parties to stop the majority agenda. Why do you need rules to stop minority obstruction when the voters perform that role?

The reality is that minority parties have a strong incentive to obstruct the majority agenda -- indeed, the 2009-2010 Republican minority may be the first to fully recognize the degree to which support for the president on almost any issue would make him more popular at their expense, and act on that belief. A governing system that relies upon the minority party to subvert its own political interests is a system that requires some kind of reform.

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