The Zeitgeist Shifts

by Jonathan Chait | March 25, 2010

The psychology of victory and defeat is a remarkable thing. A week ago, the Democrats were perceived to have an enormous political problem. Their agenda was stalled in Congress. There was a mass groundswell of public anger they had to contend with.

Suddenly those problems have been flipped on their head. Now Democrats don't have a problem because they can't pass anything, Republicans have a problem because they're obstructing everything. Whereas right-wing grassroots activism represented a public backlash against the Democrats, it's now seen as an extremist element that discredits the GOP. Political reporters are starting to construct a seamless narrative connecting the over-the-top rhetoric from GOP and conservative leaders, the unusual acts of obstructionism and legislative retribution (like canceling unrelated hearings as revenge for health care reform), and sporadic vandalism and threats of violence. For example, see Dana Milbank's column today.

The fundamental reality has not actually changed very much. It's just that the success of health care reform has made most people see the flip side of the exact same situation. Of course, a change in perception carries very real consequences. Bob Corker is now upbraiding his Republican colleagues for refusing to negotiate a bipartisan financial reform bill:

[Corker] also took an unusually public swipe at Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the banking committee, faulting him for failing to engage more seriously with the Democrats in the past. "We could have already had a bipartisan bill passed," Corker complained. "It would have been better, in fairness, had Senator Shelby been negotiating a bipartisan bill last September, October, November. I think we could have already had a bipartisan bill passed if that did occur. It didn't occur."
Instead, Corker said Republicans now confront Democratic officials who "are emboldened, the testosterone and other juices are flowing" after the enactment of the health-care bill.

Chris Dodd says Republicans are regretting their brick wall strategy:

Dodd (D-CT) told reporters this morning that "The health care thing kind of changed the atmospherics around here."
"I think, frankly, there are a number of Republicans who went along with the strategy of 'just say no' who were never really happy with it, but if it worked they would go along," Dodd said. "They saw it fail. And now they've had enough of it. and they really want to be involved in crafting things."

We should keep a couple things in mind here. Just as the emotion of the moment exaggerated Democrats' panic and fear of action, the emotion of the moment is casting the Republican strategy in the worst possible light. It's not exactly a parallel situation, because Republicans are far less responsive than Democrats to mainstream media narratives. Still, Republicans are going to consider the strategy of refusing to engage Democrats in a different light in the wake of passing health care reform than they would have if the Democrats had fallen a few votes shy in the House.

The implicit calculus in the Republican approach has always been a trade-off between politics and policy. By refusing to negotiate over health care, Republicans helped themselves politically by delaying the bill and making it partisan, which was McConnell's plan. The downside was that they forfeited a chance to alter the substance of the bill, a failure that will have long-term effects. Matthew Yglesias calls this approach "disastrous," but I think this overstates the case. The Republican strategy failed at influencing policy, but succeeded at maximizing their political success. If Republicans had engaged the process and Obama had signed a bipartisan health care bill in September, the bill would probably be very popular, Obama would be more popular, and the GOP would be in line to gain fewer seats in November than it will now. The downside of the Republican strategy was always there -- it's just that when Republicans were winning, nobody wanted to focus on it, and those of us who did were usually laughed at. Now everybody is focusing on the downside and ignoring the upside.

Finally, Democrats ought to learn the correct lesson, which is that reciprocity is generally the majority party's best approach. A strategy of partisan cohesion is best met with a counter-strategy of partisan cohesion. Demonstrating their willingness to hold together in the face of united opposition has softened the opposition and made bipartisanship possible. Which is to say, if Democrats had abandoned health care reform on the grounds that it lacked bipartisan support, then the prospects for bipartisan support in the future would have been dimmer than they are. If some Republicans are willing to negotiate on financial regulation, as they appear to be, Democrats ought to reciprocate.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/the-zeitgeist-shifts