What Republicans' Obstruction Costs Them

Blocking Democratic presidents yields temporary gains and long-term losses.

What did they stop today?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For more than 20 years, Republican politicians have followed one overarching strategy: pursuing maximum opposition to the president when they don't control the White House. 

While liberals may hate this obstruction, they agree with conservatives that it is successful and makes sense from a Republican point of view. Jonathan Chait describes it this way: 1

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.

This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. 2  It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton's election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP's midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it. 

The problem is that we now know more about the supposed success of the never-compromise strategy. Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, and wound up, perhaps in part because of the Republican decision to impeach him, as a more popular president over his eight years than Ronald Reagan was in the course of his two terms. Barack Obama was re-elected as well, and while he hasn’t been a particularly popular president, he’s currently a bit more popular than Reagan was in 1988. And people strongly dislike the Republican Party.

It’s possible the GOP's rejectionist strategy helped in the three midterm elections, but it’s far more likely those results just reflected the normal ebb and flow of elections. The president’s party usually does badly in midterms.

And, to be fair, first-term presidents usually get re-elected. I don’t think the Republican strategy in particular made Clinton or Obama more popular. For that matter, I don't see much evidence that it changed anything in either direction.

It isn't hard to find countervailing examples. President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 despite having plenty of “bipartisan cover” for the 1990 bipartisan budget deal and Democratic support for his foreign-policy actions. His biggest domestic success, the Americans With Disabilities Act, also had bipartisan support. But none of that seemed to matter one way or another when the economy slumped.

Of course, no one expects an out-of-power party to go along with what its opponent in the White House proposes. At times, very strong opposition is normal.

But normal opposition includes at least the possibility, and sometimes the reality, of cutting deals giving both sides something. And it has never in the past precluded a certain amount of government business getting done. 3  Normal opposition hasn’t produced extended government shutdowns or debt-limit crises.

It isn't just that extreme obstruction is bad for the nation. It's bad for Republican-aligned groups, too. By shunning compromise, Republicans fail to use the leverage they have to win policy victories for those groups. They also, by demanding total victory and then having to accept total defeat, encourage unrealistic expectations among their constituents. 

One result is that some Republicans even believe there has been too much cooperation with the Obama administration. If only the government had been shut down longer in 2013; if only Republicans had refused to accept the budget deals they have agreed to; if only they had blocked every single judicial and executive branch appointment. Then, these Republicans reason, they would have won more individual battles, and Obama’s popularity would have really tanked.  

That Republican faction may well use this as an excuse if Hillary Clinton is elected. In that event, everyone expects more of the same: House and Senate Republicans will do whatever they can to oppose whatever she proposes, on big and small issues, even if a compromise might be available and in both parties' interests.

But what if that strategy is based on a wrong assumption about how U.S. politics works? Then Republicans are accepting all the costs of obstruction for mostly (or even entirely) fictional benefits. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Chait’s item is an excellent response to a fascinating article in the Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch. Rauch attributes much of what’s wrong with U.S. politics to a plague of good-government purism, which has stripped the gears that allow the Madisonian machinery to work. Chait says, no, the problem is the Republican Party. They’re both right: Rauch’s general argument is good, but Chait is correct about the specifics.

  2. Yes, there have been exceptions, even during Obama’s presidency (such as Senate approval of an arms-reduction treaty with Russia, and cooperation on some trade deals).

  3. Two examples: Republicans have defeated (by filibuster if needed) routine “technical corrections” bills to clean up language in legislation such as the Affordable Care Act. And Republicans have routinely filibustered against (or, under Republican majorities, simply refused to consider) the confirmation of district court judges, even when Obama’s nominees are not controversial at all.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at

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