Republicans: Evil Strategists or Just Clueless?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum asks:

"Maybe I'm naive, but why aren't both parties also in favor of adding a debt ceiling increase to this bill?...Republicans should favor it because they're already taking a scoring hit from the Clubbies anyway, so why not toss in the debt increase and avoid a second scoring hit later in the year?...It sure seems like everyone would be better off getting this whole thing off the table at once. Don't Republicans want to spend the rest of the year complaining about Obamacare, not losing yet another debt ceiling fight?"

I don't know the answer, but I think there are two reasonable theories.

Theory #1 is that Republicans have embraced the idea that as long as Barack Obama is in the Oval Office, their best strategy is to maximize chaos and partisan bickering. That is, they may have decided that even "losing" a fight such as the government shutdown benefits them. That is, they may be betting that if approval ratings for Republicans in Congress drop 10 points while approval of Obama drops 2 points, the latter is more likely to influence election outcomes in 2014 and 2016. In other words, even if most people say they blame Congress and not the president for a bad economy, swing voters are likely to punish the president's party for hard times. (Greg Sargent hinted about such a cynical strategy this morning.) Now, it's not clear that it would actually work at the ballot box; it's true that presidents matter more than the ratings of the out party, but we don't really have any tests of a strategy this extreme, and it's very easy to see it backfiring on them. However, that's not really relevant to the question of whether it's what they're up to.

Theory #2 is that Republicans, or at least many of them, just have no idea what they're doing. The government shutdown was an obvious loser for them, but they did it anyway. Many appeared to be sincere in their (badly mistaken) belief that they would win that fight. Similarly, Republicans could have easily avoided the new "nuclear" Senate -- in which a rule change pushed through by Democrats prohibits a minority from blocking presidential nominations -- if they had been more selective about their obstruction or at least beat a strategic retreat once they had pushed Democrats to the breaking point. Instead, they inexplicably blundered right into it. Time after time, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opt to avoid lesser pain today at the cost of increased pain tomorrow. Do they (or, more likely, large portions of their conferences) just not see it coming?

Which theory is correct? I have no idea! It could even be both in some combination.

But I strongly agree with Drum that Congressional Republicans would have been smart to get the debt limit over with now. And that it's worth puzzling over why they didn't.

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