2014 and the Strategic Demise of Governance

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.,smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following his test
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.,smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "examining a constitutional amendment to restore democracy to the American people". (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

"How do you feel President Obama is doing?"

That was the question I was asked yesterday, while I stood in line at my polling place. A Swedish journalist was conducting man-on-the-street-style interviews, prepping his story for the night. He didn't ask me how I felt about Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid. He didn't ask about Ted Cruz or John Boehner.

"This," I thought to myself, "is why the Democrats are going to lose tonight."

President Obama was not on the ballot yesterday. Barack Obama is in his second term of office. He'll never be on the ballot again. But, for those who don't pay close attention to politics, the President is the avatar of government. He's "in charge." And if you think the government is inept, you place blame on the President and vote against his party -- or you throw up your hands, tune out, and don't vote at all.

Mitch McConnell knew this six years ago. As Matt Yglesias points out:

To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of a controversial use of executive power.

It's been ugly. But in most voters' mind, the ugliness has attached to Obama and, by extension, Democrats. It was a very counterintuitive strategy, but it was well-grounded in the best political science available. And it worked.

That's the basic story of what happened yesterday. Republicans in office have spent six years making sure that nothing gets accomplished in Washington. In doing so, they placed a strategic bet: "if you make politics completely awful, people will tune out. And if they tune out, they won't place the blame on us for making politics completely awful." The reason it seemed like a safe bet is that the Republican base is comprised of habitual voters, while the Obama coalition is more diverse and includes a lot of non-habitual voters.

The terrifying thing about last night is not that Republicans won a lot of individual races. The terrifying thing is that last night was a compete vindication of McConnell et al's strategic gamble. And so long as that strategy works, our elected officials won't actually bother to legislate or govern.

Consider: Republicans shut the government down last year in a hissy fit over Obamacare. The 113th Congress was the least productive ever. Even on issues like Immigration Reform, where Republican party leadership crowed about the need for compromise, absolutely nothing got done. And all of that inaction was intentional. It was a feature for the Republican leadership, not a bug.

If you go back and watch individual episodes of Congressional inaction, you'll inevitably encounter pundits confidently announcing that the voters won't stand for it. They discuss polls showing miniscule Congressional approval ratings. But what they aren't recognizing is that making politics distasteful was part of the plan all along.

And now there are pundits predicting that, in these last two years of the Obama Presidency, Republican will be forced to "prove they can govern." Don't listen to those pundits. They still haven't wised up to the strategy.

The lead editorial at the National Review today is titled "The Governing Trap." It argues against the Republicans "proclaim[ing] that they have to govern now that they run Congress.." Instead, the editors of the National Review argue that Republicans should continue to try repealing the Affordable Care Act, and should avoid working with the President to pass any legislation. They write, "Even if Republicans passed this foolish test, it would do little for them. If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn't they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?"

The terrifying thing about this strategy is that there is no clear counter-strategy. Republicans will continue to make sure nothing gets done in Congress. Voters will continue to be disgusted, tuning out from politics as a result. And then, tuned out from politics, they'll see less reason to turn out on election day, and less value in paying close attention along the way. They'll be left, like that foreign reporter, asking simple questions such as "how do I feel about the President?" and voting (or staying home) accordingly.

Republican intransigence has no electoral costs, and plenty of electoral benefits.

Welcome to the new status quo.