2016 Elections

Republicans Keep Trying to Make Rejectionism Work

Yet that strategy doesn't seem to hurt Democratic presidents.

The House is in session.

Photographer: Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

House Republicans are digging in for four years of nonstop investigations of Hillary Clinton if she is elected, and promising rejection of any legislation she proposes. As Paul Waldman at the Plum Line put it, they’ve already prepared to treat her presidency as illegitimate (assuming she wins), just as they did with Barack Obama.

Some of this is what political scientists might call internal coalition management: Republican congressional leaders are afraid of their conferences, and rank-and-file members of Congress are afraid of being defeated in primaries by more extreme GOP opponents.

But some of it appears to be a sincere belief that compromise and cooperation with an opposite party are electorally stupid, a view that some liberals share. Jonathan Chait argues:

What Republicans have demonstrated and proved during the Obama era is that bipartisan cooperation is a losing strategy for the out party. As Mitch McConnell explained, if proposals had bipartisan support, it would signal to America that they were unobjectionable, making them, and their president, popular; the president’s popularity would then make it harder for the opposition to gain seats or defeat him in the next election.

I disagree. This hasn’t been “demonstrated and proved” at all.

A little history. Republicans embraced a rejectionist strategy during four presidential terms, the two for Obama and the two for Bill Clinton. While some people may look back on the Clinton era as relatively productive, at least on policy, with the North American Free Trade Agreement in his first term and welfare reform in his second as examples of significant bipartisan deals, in fact the Republicans overwhelmingly chose to confront instead of trying to find mutually beneficial deals. 

Yet Clinton and Obama were both easily re-elected in 1996 and in 2012, respectively. And it appears right now that a Democrat will succeed Obama. 1  

Bill Clinton wound up as a popular president, with approval ratings higher than Ronald Reagan’s over the course of their presidencies. Obama was less popular, but is finishing up strong. His Gallup approval rating for Oct. 17-23 was 55 percent, which is a bit better than where Reagan was in November 1988 and higher than Bush’s ranking in fall 2008. 

Of course, Democratic Congresses have opposed Republican presidents on many issues. But they didn’t outright refuse to work with those presidents, and they had plenty of bipartisan agreements. For example, Democrats reached an early deal with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind and worked with him on his first major tax-cut bill.

This isn’t to say that bipartisan cooperation is always good or that it necessarily helps the president. It didn’t help Bush that many Democrats voted to authorize the Iraq war, for example.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, congressional Republicans will initially oppose much of what she proposes even if they don't specifically choose rejectionism as a strategy. Partisan polarization in Congress is based on real issues. Few moderates survive in either party. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, once significant groups within both parties, are long gone.

So hoping to have full bipartisanship is a pipe dream, and not very enticing either. There’s plenty to be said for keeping ideological cohesion within the parties.

Still, normal opposition has, with the exceptions of the Bill Clinton and Obama presidencies, entailed the possibility of cutting deals that give both parties some of what they want. 2 This is still theoretically possible on many issues -- taxes, the budget, health care and perhaps even immigration. That the parties are further apart doesn’t mean compromise is impossible -- unless one party or both of them consider compromise to be defeat.

If Republicans take that route, not only will they give up the chance to make gains on some of their policies. They won’t likely achieve their main goal either -- hurting the president’s popularity when it matters. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Democratic Vice President Al Gore lost a tied election in 2000 to George W. Bush that might just as easily have gone his way. 

  2. I'm talking here just about the Republican reaction to a Clinton administration and what is in their own self-interest. It's equally in the interest of the president to work with the opposition party, and during periods of divided government it's a necessity. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.