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Derailed

For the last year, Republicans have worked, assiduously and effectively, to derail the Democrats’ legislative agenda. This, in fact, was a constant in Axelrod’s remarks. “They made a decision they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed, that the country failed.” It’s been an inarguable success for the Republican Party. Health-care reform is on life support. Republicans just won a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Election experts are beginning to talk about a potential Republican takeover in November. There is no case to be made that the GOP is in a worse position than a year ago. ~Ezra Klein [1]

It occurs to me that the arguments for recent GOP successes are rather like Republican arguments concerning our wars abroad. Bear with me. What I mean is that Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning. This is how many Republican hawks have approached problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in Iraq, the strategy has always been unclear, unrealistic or even non-existent, so there is great emphasis on finding tactics that “work” to make a basically incoherent policy seem successful on the surface.

The Republican glorification of the “surge” is a case in point. A change in tactics was widely hailed on the right not only as a “new strategy,” which showed that the people saying this did not understand what strategy was, but most Republicans took it to be a vindication of the entire war. Tactical success later matters more to them than the strategic folly they committed earlier. It is almost as if resisting Obama tooth and nail counts for more to them than the utter failure of their time in government, and they fully expect to be rewarded with a new chance at governing on account of their blocking maneuvers. As time goes on, however, the limits of this approach become clear. Having no understanding of strategy and no definition of the long-term goals to be achieved, they are ultimately not going to succeed in any remotely enduring way. Tactical victories simply delay the final reckoning and prevent the recognition that the policy or agenda is bankrupt and useless.

So Klein is right that as far as short-term, tactical success is concerned the last few months have been very good for the GOP. However, nothing could be worse for the GOP than the illusion of success under present circumstances. Worse than learning nothing from the last two elections, the GOP has learned the wrong things. Republicans made up a self-serving story that the public turned against them because of excessive spending. This permitted them to ignore the real reasons for their defeats. Aggressive foreign policy and loose monetary policy, among other things, remain as sacrosanct and beyond reproach in the GOP as they were in the early Bush years. Not recognizing their past errors, the GOP will make them again and again in the future, and they will attempt to cover these mistakes with temporary, tactical solutions that simply put off the consequences of their terrible decisions until someone else is in office. They will then exploit the situation as much as they possibly can, pinning the blame for their errors on their hapless inheritors and hoping that the latter are so pitiful that they retreat into yet another defensive crouch.

Is the GOP in a worse position than a year ago? On the surface, no, it isn’t. Once we get past the surface, however, the same stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, unimaginative party that brought our country to its current predicament is still there and has not changed in any meaningful way in the last three years. Why would it? The party’s leaders have no clue, its pundits are reveling in the luxury of opposition, and its rank-and-file has been whipped into such a state of agitation over their own impotence that they cannot see that they are led by people who will ignore and abuse them the moment they are no longer needed to win elections. It may seem that the GOP has derailed the majority’s agenda, but in reality it is the GOP that went off the rails long ago and has yet to begin to recover.

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6 Comments To "Derailed"

#1 Comment By Aaron On January 29, 2010 @ 9:47 am

How harmful is it to a political party to be “stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, [and] unimaginative” when the other political party is arguably no better? Note, I’m not asking whether it’s harmful to the country….

#2 Comment By Young Geezer On January 29, 2010 @ 10:16 am

“they will attempt to cover these mistakes with temporary, tactical solutions that simply put off the consequences of their terrible decisions until someone else is in office. They will then exploit the situation as much as they possibly can, pinning the blame for their errors on their hapless inheritors and hoping that the latter are so pitiful that they retreat into yet another defensive crouch.”

It sounds like the GOP has learned the RIGHT lesson: try to get away with everything you can while in power, and blame it all on your opponents when you’re the opposition…to win back power. Repeat. The public seems to have a short enough attention span as not to remember these things.

#3 Pingback By Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » Crazy train On January 29, 2010 @ 10:51 am

[…] Daniel Larison takes the long view on Republican obstructionism: […]

#4 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On January 29, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

I’m with Aaron, the stick has never been how well the country is doing (we couldn’t even ever agree on what doing well means), it is how well is your party doing compared to the other. Take the last paragraph, slightly altered:

Are the Dems in a worse position than a year ago? Beyond a couple of local elections, no, they aren’t. Once we get past the surface, however, the same stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, unimaginative New Democrats and Blue Dogs that helped to bring our country to its current predicament is still there and has not changed in any meaningful way in the last ten years. Why would they? The party‚Äôs leaders are awash in campaign contributions, its pundits are reveling in the luxury of making fun of the opposition, and its rank-and-file has been whipped into such a state of agitation over their own impotence that their first priority is to run primary challenges in major races across the country. It may seem that the GOP have derailed their agenda, but in reality it is the Dems that went off the rails long ago and has yet to begin to recover.

#5 Comment By Mercer On January 29, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

I think the problem is with the base at least as much as the leaders.

The base believes in four things: The US should be the world policeman. Medicare costs should not be scrutinized. Taxes should always be cut. The budget deficits should be reduced.

There seems to be no recognition that these goals conflict. If The GOP gets back in power soon the budget will be a bigger mess then last time thanks to all the talk about death panels and Medicare.

#6 Comment By J On January 29, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

Let’s imagine that the country accepts the agenda of one Party but parts of that Party’s leadership, say in one chamber of the national legislature, are rotten and can’t deliver on the agenda. The ideal course of action, given that no Party self-corrects, would be to knock out this rotten leadership by electing enough members of the opposition Party to that chamber of the legislature. This opposition would optimally, in the view of swing voters, be united in opposition to this defective leadership but be incoherent in policy and individually objectionable, as well as obviously incompetent at governance. These traits would make its members very easy to vote out as soon as the majority party installs better leadership.

This is a totally hypothetical scenario, of course.