Friday, October 09, 2015

What Just Happened to the House GOP?

As you have all seen by now, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dramatically withdrawn from the race for Speaker of the House. As every news story has made clear, McCarthy was undone by the opposition of a group of hard-liners (probably about forty of them). What the news stories don't make clear is that those hard-liners could not have come close to beating McCarthy at the caucus election where McCarthy resigned. The GOP caucus would have elected McCarthy comfortably if he had let them vote. But the forty malcontents who shivved McCarthy refused to accept the result of their own party's election. They were going to vote against McCarthy on the House floor with the Democrats. No news story explains this particularly clearly, but it's that, rather than the details of McCarthy or Boehner's individual political fates, that really suggests a major change.

The usual political logic is you try to get someone you want as your own party's candidate, but then you stick with your party's choice in the election with the other party. If you don't like Pelosi or Boehner (or Gingrich or Hastert or Wright or O'Neill or ...) you vote against them in your own party's caucus vote. But if most of your party still votes for Pelosi/Gingerich/Boehner/O'Neill, you go out and vote for that person, too. The forty-or-so malcontents in the self-described "House Freedom Caucus" are done playing by those rules. Unless they are given what they want (indeed, apparently almost everything they want), they are going to shiv their own party's elected leaders.

Boehner didn't lose support among Republicans in the sense that a solid majority of House Republicans did not back him. He resigned from the Speakership because a minority of House Republicans refused to accept what the majority of their own party wanted.

What this means is that the Tea Party, more or less (the most conservative segment of the House Republicans) has begun to operate like a parliamentary third party. Specifically, they are beginning to behave like the tiny minority parties (often fifth- or eighth- or ninth-parties) who gain disproportionate power in multiparty parliaments like Italy's or Israel's. The major parties in those parliaments, while much larger than the tiny parties, can seldom form a majority coalition alone. Neither Likud nor Labor wins more than 50% of the seats in Parliament. So they have to cobble together coalitions by bringing in various small parties, each of which gets to make its demands. And therefore those small parties get significantly more influence than the number of actual voters they attract would suggest. The tail gets to wag the dog a little bit every time a government forms.

Now, the Democrats and Republicans have both always been somewhat unlikely and unruly coalitions, with pretty strange bedfellows in each party. But mostly, the Democrats and Republicans have mostly operated like single parties, keeping the fractious infighting on the inside. But the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Hostage Takers are no longer playing by those rules. They are willing to sabotage their own party's candidate for Speaker of the House, the same way various small Italian or Israeli parties are willing to sabotage their natural allies' chance of building a governing coalition until enough favors have been extracted.

Note here that the group of Congressmen doing this is unrepresentative in two ways. They represent a tiny minority of voters, easily less than 10%. And they are on one of the far ends of the political spectrum. It's not the forty most moderate Republicans demanding to call the shots or they'll burn the whole pool hall down. It's the forty most hyper-conservative Republicans, the ones furthest away from the median voter.

In earlier periods, before the Democrats and Republicans were as cleanly sorted along ideological lines as they are today, a small minority in Congress, suggesting a closely-divided public, usually led to a more moderate, compromise-oriented Congress. There were enough conservative Democrats and enough liberal Republicans that neither party  could make big changes without a big majority. A party with a slim majority in the House could not ram through big initiatives that the other party hated, because the moderates in your own party would vote with the other side. That seemed roughly to reflect the will of the people.

Now the most-conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most-liberal Republican in Congress, and vice-versa. So there's little danger, especially for Republicans, of House members defecting to the other party. Now the danger is that the hardest-line members of your own party (people who, maddeningly, have no closer political ally than you in the world) will betray you and disrupt the functioning of government in order to get what they want. So the current system gives outsized influence to tiny political groups, who are far from the ideological mainstream and have done various things of which the country deeply disapproves. It is not pretty and it is not fair, but it seems to be what our system is becoming. Of course, it didn't used to be this way.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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