Barack Obama 2.0 = the Left’s Mitch McConnell

(Alternate Title: “Trolling the Republicans: Obama’s Elephant Gambit”)

It’s 2013, just days before a presidential reinauguration. Do you know who your president is?

The blogosphere contains myriad cottage industries inspired by Barack Obama’s supposed inscrutability. To some—birthers and their ilk—he’s nefariously mysterious. To others—often fired by 2012 campaign rhetoric—Obama’s only confusing because he’s an “overmatched” bungler short on leadership skills. To many radicals, Obama’s a conviction-free pol who is insufficiently left or right or statist or liberty-loving or some other such thing. Still others think he’s inexplicable because he’s a misanthrope. There are many thousands of posts, essays, and op-eds that slot into each of those categories (and that’s hardly an exhaustive list of the “we don’t get this guy” crowd).

What if it’s really not that complicated? What if Barack Obama 2.0 is just the left’s version of Mitch McConnell? I’m increasingly convinced that Obama’s decided that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are right—Republican ideological rigidity is today’s biggest cause of political gridlock—and he’s dedicating his second term to doing something about it.

To alter McConnell’s well-worn phrase just a bit: The single most important thing Obama wants to achieve is to destroy the Republican Party’s far-right fringe. If his moves seem confusing, that may be because they’re not necessarily calibrated to maximize anything (progressive policy victories, Democratic Party positioning, et al) in the short term. They’re calculated to—over the long haul—force Republicans to surrender their ideological purity as often as possible and on as many issues as possible. His governing strategy from now on has more to do with maneuvering his opponents than any other concern. And hey, that might be a good thing.


A year ago yesterday, Andrew Sullivan argued that President Obama’s first term was best understood as the foundation for his “long game.” When it comes to politics (and governance), Obama “eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage,” a strategy which can look pretty odd when framed to fit Potomac-area attention spans.

[T]he president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak.

This is about right—at least as far as his approach to discrete fights goes. The problem comes right after Obama identifies his opponents as “the source of the problem.” If nothing else, his first term showed that Obama’s long game hadn’t prevented him from being “tarred as an ideologue or a divider.” It’s true that McConnell (et al) didn’t apply these labels “effectively” enough to make him a one-term president, but their scorched earth rhetoric made a mess of the last year (and change) of his first term.

Lesson learned. Obama’s come out much tougher in the months since the election, and it’s a specific sort of tough. He’s not insisting on huge progressive policy shifts—he’s insisting that the Republicans play ball or take the blame. Period.

Look carefully and you’ll see that it’s the same strategy that Sullivan identified last January—but now it’s been amended to respond to GOP extremism. He’s still inviting their wildest rhetoric, but now it’s part of a coordinated effort to emphasize the fact that “they are the problem.” From now on, each fight will be designed to make the Republicans choose to govern or confirm their reputation as intransigent extremists.

That’s why additional revenue for the fiscal cliff deal had to come from increased tax rates. Whatever the deal’s immediate policy merits, it broke the GOP’s Norquistian orthodoxy on rate hikes. The fact that they worked up such a prodigious, Thrasymachean sweat on the way to compromise only compounded the damage to their reputation. Even more importantly, the next time Republicans put on their sacred Trickle-Down Temple robes, they’ll see a stain.[1]

That’s also why Chuck Hagel is such a perfect nominee for Secretary of Defense. Is he a progressive? Is he the only man for the job? No and no. But he’s a Republican that Republicans love to hate. They’re thinking seriously of tying up the nomination of one of their own. Stipulate for a minute that there are other reasons that they’d block Hagel’s confirmation—that’s not how it’s going to look to Joe and Jane Voter. Very few of these folks have time to be interested in cabinet nominations for long, but they’ll notice an obvious storyline that confirms the going narrative about the GOP: “Capitol Hill Republicans block President Obama’s Republican Secretary of Defense nominee.” In a gridlock-weary country, a party that won’t accept bipartisan inclusion of its own members in a governing coalition is going to shoulder the blame for the resulting mess.

Mark my words: Obama’s going to troll the GOP for the rest of his term. He’s going to refuse to take the blame for their intransigence. Watch the coming immigration reform fight. There will be several moves (at least) that are designed to give Republicans a choice between 1) pure self-marginalization, and 2) stepping back from their radicalism. Best of all, perhaps, is the built-in “ratchet” effect. Each time the Republicans threaten Beltway paralysis over compromise proposals, they make it even harder to appear mature, moderate, and trustworthy.

This is a strategy that, as Sullivan notes, isn’t always going to play well with Obama’s base. It’s not likely to bring a host of progressive policy victories. It’s not necessarily conducive to short-term political successes. Depending on the degree of GOP fervency, the strategy may lead to serious economic turmoil.

But it may well be the only progressive strategy suited to our times. As good as the demographics look for the Democrats, Republican radicalism remains a serious hindrance to the American government’s continuing function. Call it the last, plaintive gasps of the Reagan Era. Call it Machiavellian. Call it whatever you’d like. The GOP has left itself very little ability to strike back. Either they placate their base (to their long-term political detriment) or they start demonstrating to the country that they aren’t as uniformly partisan as perceived. It’s a terrible choice for a party to face—upward pressure from their mobilized grassroots vs. the danger of national marginalization—but it’s the GOP’s just desserts. After refusing to work with Obama during his first term in order to deny him the appearance of bipartisan victories, it’s only right that they’ll spend his second term forced to do business his way.

Conor Williams on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s his background and his email

 


[1] Worth noting: this is also why Obama was relatively unwilling to go over the fiscal cliff. While it’s likely that Republicans (esp. in the House) would have taken a disproportionate amount of the blame for the ensuing economic troubles, it would have encouraged the “pox on both their houses” narrative that fuels so much political coverage today. Even if he could have gotten a better (on substance) deal post-cliff, it would have cost him the leverage of being perceived as more reasonable than Eric Cantor and Co.

Also: compromises are only “stains” for those forced to loathe compromise “by the momentum of their own ideology.” In the mature adult world of political governance, a slight increase in tax rates on the very wealthy is a small policy—hardly something that warrants holding the global economy hostage.

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80 thoughts on “Barack Obama 2.0 = the Left’s Mitch McConnell

  1. I’m still skeptical of how “planned” any of this is. Obama is doing what Democratic Presidents tend to do: offer right of center compromises.

    The GOP is doing what it tends to do: offer right of right counter-proposals.

    Whether or not that leads to the GOP imploding seems to be just a matter of chance. After all, what in your mind makes this moment so different from the Clinton/Gingrich showdown?

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    • Can’t speak for the author, but the contrast between 1st term negotiations (negotiating with himself in the parlance) versus second term steeliness. It may not be that different from Clinton, but Obama the 2nd seems somewhat different than Obama the 1st.

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    • It is interesting to note from the right wing radiosphere the past few days, there has been a steady drumbeat of “either the GOP shuts down the government and refuses to raise the debt ceiling or they will cease to have a political party” rhetoric.

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    • I think I’m with Ethan on this one. I don’t think what we’re seeing now is all that different from Clinton v. Gingrich ’95. And therefore there’s every reason to expect it would work out the same way: John the Orange loses in the battle of charisma, so he soaks up more of the blame than President Obama.

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    • The extent to which this was “planned” is debatable, but it seems pretty clear to me that a long game has been the strategy from the beginning. And, of course, a second term was a pre-requisite for the long game strategy, so first term decisions were predicated on what made re-election most likely. Now that re-election is off the table for Obama, the basis of the decision making changes.

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      • That’s true for every second-term President. Good Presidents are good political leaders, which means securing every advantage for the President’s successor as is possible.

        A big fault I have with Bush the Younger was he never groomed a successor. He drove in some political points for his party with the Bush Tax Cuts and raising money to lock in state-level gerrymandering, but clearly didn’t give a damn who took over after him in the White House.

        Really great Presidents groom successors. Clinton helped groom Gore even though I’m not sure he particularly liked Gore all that much, at least when they started out in ’93. Reagan helped groom Bush the Elder even though I’m pretty sure they didn’t like each other at all.

        It’s still a bit early to see who Obama will groom (if anyone) to be the next President. It still doesn’t seem likely to me to be Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden? John Kerry? They both seem like yesterday’s news, each having tried and failed to be President. But it’s early yet, the second term has yet to begin. But that’s one of the things I’m looking out for — will Obama cultivate somebody to be his logical, natural successor?

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        • Burt –

          I think you are right about the importance of setting up a successor. Kennedy’s and Reagan’s legacies as agents of change both depended on their parties holding the WH after their times.

          (I don’t know if Bush the Younger’s failure to groom a successor mattered much. His name was poison by the end of his second term. If the economy reverts to recession in the next 4 years, Obama’s long game strategy won’t matter a whit either.)

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          • If the economy reverts to recession in the next 4 years, Obama’s long game strategy won’t matter a whit either.

            If the economy reverts to recession in the next 4 years, and the House of Representatives is on record as opposing every single proposed bill, then we are going to have one hell of a contentious 2016 race. Given that House GOP currently has a favorable/unfavorable rating lower than Nickelback already…

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  2. Looking at things like Immigration I also have to give props to either side and their ability to reshape the dialogue to match what they want to talk about. For example the President can put out a pathway to citizenship to the millions of illegal aliens living in the US. The Republicans can threaten to stall the pathway until there is security reform at the border and better deportation of those caught who are here illegally.

    Now the President can sit back and say “hey.. I put out a policy, don’t blame me for nothing happening; it’s those guys”. And because he is taking a more populist view, it’s harder for the Republicans to turn it around and say “we want to work on reform but we can’t do this without that.”

    In effect they have two different issues to argue about, and it seems that either the first issue on the topic, or the more populist issue on it, tends to get the better play. Never mind that the Republicans are generally fighting against a handsome, popular man with old, unattractive, white guys.

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    • This is the type of thing that disgusts me with framing being given greater priority than substance.

      First, the issue of citizenship is entirely unrelated to whether undocumented workers should be allowed to remain and work in the US.
      Secondly, with the way that work visas are limited in relation to those issued in previous years, the de facto effect is one of preference for lower skilled workers at the direct expense of skilled workers.

      None of which has to do with any prominent talking points.

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  3. Google returns the searches you want to see, a sort of mechanical confirmation bias. It’s currently quite fashionable to pretend otherwise. Obama faces a tough four years. The bully pulpit and the veto are his main remaining weapons.

    The greatest GOP victory came in the wake of the 2010 census. Their gerrymandering of many districts will leave the country stuck with that until the next census in 2020. With that gerrymandering, the country now is locked in a perpetual trench warfare, a stalemate from which nobody will benefit and most of us will lose. The GOP is caught in a cleft stick of its own making: the old bulls cannot control their more radical members but they can routinely win the House majority.

    The GOP is a long way from dead. The empty barrels may make the most noise but not all those barrels are empty. If Obama’s rhetoric is noisier, the same is true of his positions.

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    • While on it’s surface the gerrymandering seems a problem, it’s also important to remember that it’s not locked into the population at the time of the census; demographics of districts change. So the ages of populations within gerrymandered districts matter, as do population shifts.

      This will only matter at the margins, but it will matter enough to shift a few districts here and there, and given the aging Republican base, that shift should, theoretically, be to the left.

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      • I am currently corresponding with a guy contemplating a run for the House in MO 5. He’s a natural Republican who intends to run as a Democrat. Wants me to assemble talking points and do some speechwriting. A Blue Dog 2.0 edition. Fascinating guy. The Republican who ran last rubbed a lot of fur the wrong way: this guy wants to run as a Conservative Dem.

        The more I study redistricting the clearer the issues become. Dems do well in urban areas but GOP does well in collar counties. That has been true for decades and will be true for the foreseeable future demographics notwithstanding. We haven’t seen the last of the Oldsters. The Dems are vulnerable to infiltration from the Right, as they were in the Blue Dog era.

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        • Yeah, “infiltration from the Right.” Folks like kos, and the technocrats, and the creative class in general. The meme police, if you will.

          We ought to hope and pray that the Republicans are just as vulnerable. (or, work towards making them so).

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          • I mean– really– the GOP brand stinks bad. The meme police are, in the words of HHG, “mostly harmless”. DKos is an echo chamber. The Progressives are mostly self deluded: their outreach to nonbelievers is truly awful.

            Me, I see more hope for including the sensible Conservative in the Dem fold than others. I still call myself a Progressive but then I’ve worked with refugees. Gotta start at the beginning with the disenchanted Republican. The Democratic tent is big enough for them too.

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              • Oh please, Jaybird. It’s perfectly sustainable. The GOP isn’t going to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

                The Dems are not going to move very far to the right. Where is that, exactly? Into the Land o’ Limbaugh? That gasbag is burning like the Hindenburg. Even Fox News is now on the journalistic equivalent of Haldol, to quiet the Terrible Voices in their empty heads.

                Take the Blue Label off Obama and most of the Democratic Senate and they’re indistinguishable from the Republicans of old, you know, before Newt Gingrich et. al. gave the bum’s rush to the moderates in his own party. It’s only gotten worse since then, culminating in the Tea Parties, which were nothing more than a severe allergic reaction to the collective bullshit emitted from the GOP for two decades.

                See, most reactions of that sort begin with blind outrage. The bloom is off the Tea Partiers’ roses. Now they’re having to learn to get re-elected and they’re over their initial flush of 2010 enthusiasm. The conservatives are over their initial infatuation with these bozos. Trying to stay in love is rather like trying to stay drunk: there comes a point where you’re both drunk and hung over. That’s where the GOP is just now. They’ll sober up and try to un-ring the bell on all that dumbassery emitted by Romney and the bigots and the jamokes who just can’t stop talking about rape. They’ll also try to teach the GOP Elephant to speak some Spanish: look for Marco Rubio to bear the standard for a while, not that it will convince any Mexicans to vote GOP, what with Rubio being a Cubano and all.

                The Conservative Democrats are on their way back from wherever the Blue Dogs went.

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            • “Progressives are mostly self deluded”
              I think it says something that folks like Brin, Devilstower, and people like ’em are listening.

              And plenty of people are “mostly harmless” until you piss them off past repair. Weren’t you just talking about the Arab Spring? ;)

              The democratic primary is NOT how we run a Presidential Election. Too easy to rig (and I take that from some master shysters and trolls).

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              • Don’t even talk to me about DKos or its denizens. They’re lost in the funhouse of mirrors. I’m sick of them all.

                My opinion of the Arab Spring was tempered by the notion that the New Islamists have no conception of how to run a government, if you recall. The Arab Spring began with the intellectuals and the socialists. The Islamists didn’t jump on the bandwagon until they took the measure of Tahrir Square and suddenly realised they weren’t going back to eating Confinement Loaf if they got involved, too.

                Pissing people off is the surest way to win an argument these days. Makes their mainsprings go Sproing and all those itsy bitsy gears go flying in every direction. The GOP is a big dumb dog someone’s been teasing. Now it’s at the end of its chain, up on its hind legs, slavering and choking and barking.

                The Democrats can win national elections: Obama and the Senate proved that point. We have enough power in urban areas, enough to mask the effects of large, sparsely-populated GOP areas. But we do not have enough power at the individual state level in House races.

                See, Democrats have begun to attract fiscal conservatives, mostly because Democrats have a shorter turning radius than the GOP counterparts. We’re not as hidebound, less prone to say stupid shit and far more likely to face facts. I’m looking at Jerry Brown just now, slashing budgets to the bone, raising taxes — oh, he’s still got big problems, billions in unfunded obligations still out there. But California has managed to get enough air going over its wings to get the Aircraft of State out of its latest stall, but only by putting the aircraft into a nosedive. Takes guts to annoy Liberals like that: Lord knows those cuts have hurt plenty of people.

                Shysters, trolls, poverty pimps, single-issue johnnies, they’re all out there banging their little spoons on the bottoms of their saucepans. Forget the presidential elections for now. 2014 is coming around the bend here and with it the midterms. I expect the Democrats to do rather well: my man is certainly not the only Natural Conservative to try out the Democratic Coat of Many Colours for size.

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                  • Obama’s cut entitlements. The GOP won’t raise taxes. California endured both. I want to see the Democrats pull the GOP’s heads back and cut their political throats for the damage they’ve done to this nation since Obama was elected. They never gave the Democrats a chance, not an inch.

                    The GOP have repeatedly brought this nation to the brink of disaster. They wouldn’t govern and wouldn’t allow others to govern. If only the GOP were actually conservatives, they might be forgiven. They weren’t conservative, not in the least. They were just the Party of No. In the complete and absolutely feckless absence of conservative Republican leadership, the Democrats will have to take up the slack, faut de mieux. I believe they will.

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                    • Can’t speak for your average cerulean canine, but there’s been a noticeable trend of Republicans pretending to be anything but. The latest and best exhibits: Scott Zombie Senator Brown and Linda McMahon. In Zombie Senator’s case, it was hilarious to see his attempts to avoid even being in the same room as the word Republican.

                      As for the numbskulls who have decided to hate Pelosi because they have nothing constructive to say, I hope they enjoy their intimacy with that cold, dead chicken.

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                • “Pissing people off is the surest way to win an argument these days. Makes their mainsprings go Sproing and all those itsy bitsy gears go flying in every direction. The GOP is a big dumb dog someone’s been teasing. Now it’s at the end of its chain, up on its hind legs, slavering and choking and barking.”

                  Ayup. Thing is? It’s trolls what have been doing that teasing. People do an awful lot of research on the internet…. a good deal of it is on how to piss other people off.

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                • When you have four times as much money as your opposition, you can afford to squander some of it helping them shoot themselves in the foot.

                  Sure, McCaskill may have loaded the gun and left it on the shelf with a big sign on it that said, “Shoot yourself in the foot!”, but the GOP pulled the trigger.

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                  • This is just like Nevada in 2010, the Dems supported the person least able to beat their incumbent. Kim already said she’d voted for the least worthy person on the opposition’s side in her elections and I said then that was unethical at least. However ethics in politics and Democrats are not words that can be used unironically in the same sentence.

                    MA wants to make this about an idiot talking rape whereas the reality is this is about Democrats suborning the political process to place the least qualified candidate against their candidate. Akin had his little niche as a congresscritter but had no business in the senate and that’s how a tax cheat gets reelected in Mizz land.

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                    • The really important factor is that it’s hard to credibly claim that your opponent can force you to choose the candidate that’s farther away from the mean voter especially when you have an open primary.

                      It assumes wayyy too much when it comes to the ability of the opponent to persuade both your own constituency and the mean voter themselves.

                      I mean, this assumes that enough of the mean voters were convinced that Aiken was the most conservative in the primary… *and* then were convinced this was bad in the general. Or it assumes that most of the actual conservative voters liked Aiken better. In which case, they made their own crap sandwich.

                      Unless Ward is going to jump on the campaign refinance reform wagon on the grounds that money overly influences politics. I jumped off that bandwagon myself two years ago.

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                    • Missouri has a long history of putting two very bad candidates up against each other.*
                      Case in point: Nixon (D) and Hulshof (R) for Gov. in 2008.

                      Summary: Plenty of stupid to go around.

                      But seriously, all this talk of Akin ignores that he was a Congressman for 12 yrs, and served in the State House for 12 yrs before that.
                      And it ignores some basic facts about McCaskill being tied to corruption.
                      The whole thing reinforces the narrative of D= corrupt & R= brainless.

                      * I voted for Steelman for State Treasurer, but I had serious reservations about her as Senator. Very different job duties there.

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                    • ward,
                      no, that wasn’t me. I’m likely to vote, if I vote in a primary, for the guy I think would govern best. That this guy might be most likely to LOSE is immaterial.
                      And I haven’t voted in the opposing party’s primary. Ever. I might if there was reason.

                      I have, in the main election, voted for the person who I thought would govern best (or, at teh very least, could be voted out later most easily).

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        • Mo 5 is Cleaver’s district, and it will be until the day he dies.
          The guy might stand a better chance as a D in Mo 6. Graves won that before because the D’s ran Barnes, a horrible choice, considering the criticisms against her as mayor. Graves v. Tarkio was a no contest sort of thing.
          Graves’ big schtick is, “I’m a third-generation Missouri farmer!” when in fact, so were the James brothers; and not from so far away.

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  4. I’ve had similar thoughts the last few months, Conor, especially with regards to the Hagel nomination. It’s a divide and conquer strategy, and one of the oldest tricks in the book. To no small extent, I think the goal is to tear the GOP asunder by exposing their ideological incoherency, generally getting a pretty good, though perhaps not great, deal for his core constituencies in the process.

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    • Agreed. That is what it looks like and personally I’d welcome it. Okay so Obama won’t move policy very far to the left but ya know that’s not bad. If the final outcome is that the GOP either implodes, reforms or gets shellacked in the next election that’s a pretty good deal to my eyes.
      Also, after watching Obama play punching bag through the entire first term it’s full on pallative to see him standing tough for once*.

      *note this assumes that he continues to stand tough. If he folds on this upcoming fight he’ll be utterly discredited.

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      • “If the final outcome is that the GOP either implodes, reforms or gets shellacked in the next election that’s a pretty good deal to my eyes.”

        Baked in the cake. From health care reform on. Might not be next election, though, Might take a bit longer. Depends on whether folks like you get off your butts and help!

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        • I donate a little money to the Dems but only a bit. They’re too, well, themselves for me to ever donate my time. My time and the preponderance of my donation money goes to causes closer to home because, what can I say, I am nakedly self interested.

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  5. Conor, this is (as always) excellent. I could spend a whole lot of time pointing out all the places you hit exactly right, and add a dozen or so “+1″s but that would be boring; so instead I’ll just say the only vaguely critical sounding thing I can think of to say at the moment:

    You don’t post nearly often enough.

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  6. The question, “To what end?” remains unanswered. Is the goal to reshape the Republican Party to be a center-right group which shares Obama’s views on things? Or is it to pull out (an unusual) electoral victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections, and then push a center-left agenda to make his own party happy in the last two years of his administration? Or simply that in the face of probable gridlock for the next four years, he needs a hobby?

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  7. 2014, FYI, should see a large Republican victory with a corresponding hardening of attitudes. It will play directly into the “Mitt Romney wasn’t conservative enough” viewpoint and will make 2016 all the more…interesting, in the Chinese sense.

    The fact that 2014’s electorate will be, by and large, significantly older, whiter, and more conservative than 2012’s or 2016’s (mid-term elections generally are) will probably weigh heavily on the minds of quite a number of Republicans who will be rather helpless to do anything about it.

    It will be quite interesting to see if 2016 once again shows a return to poll-denialism built mostly on 2014 turnout. (Mid term elections have different turnouts than Presidential years. Always been that way. It’s when they don’t follow the pattern — when you get an electorate that is not ‘standard’ for the mid-years that weird stuff has happened, like the 2006 Democratic wave or the 1994 Republican one. The former being less white and older, the latter being much more so.).

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      • Gun control will be old news. Mitt Romney being a RINO was the first response during the primary from the base, their grumble during the campaign, and their immediate aftermath of a response.

        Given the nature of off-year primaries and elections, the 2014 class will be quite harder-right than the 2012 class, and they will win seats.

        It’s not gonna be a single-issue election in 2014, especially not over an issue from almost two years prior. It’ll be the usual base turnout election and the GOP will be beating the usual drums.

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  8. Some random thoughts.

    1. Well written and very thoughtful post, as we’ve come to expect from Conor.

    2. Of course the final interpretation of the Obama presidency will come a couple of decades from now, but if this interpretation sticks, it will be a boost to his historical standing (at least if he has some success).

    3. I’m skeptical that he actually can have success, because the method seems predicated on viewing the GOP as responsive to the public as a whole, while they actually are responsive to discrete state and district level constituencies, many of which have been carefully gerrymandered to make them very non-representative of the public as a whole–the median voter of most GOP House districts is considerably to the right of the median voter in America–so revealing to the public their radical intransigence is unlikely to harm their re-election chances, whereas retreating from radical intransigence could.

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