The Myth of Republican Governance

If your ideology says government can’t succeed, why prove yourself wrong?

Any day now, we are often assured, Republicans in Congress will start to take their jobs seriously. It hasn’t happened yet, but soon.

“I think a lot of people better get serious about governing,” Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said last Friday, after the House failed to fund the Department of Homeland Security past next Friday. It’ll happen. Any day. Any minute.

Of course, they were very serious about governing during the George W. Bush administration. But nobody — not even Bush’s closest relatives — want to think too hard about those days now.

And then the Obama landslide of 2008 made Republicans almost irrelevant for two years. Suddenly there was no point trying to take responsibility for anything, and Republicans discovered the invigorating thrill of pure nihilism. They were free to propose nothing and say no to everything, even their own ideas from that era we don’t talk about any more.

So when Obama based his healthcare proposal on Romneycare, Romney opposed it. McCain turned against the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan, and voted against his own immigration reform. Republicans were all mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more — whatever it was.

But when the low-turnout election of 2010 made John Boehner Speaker of the House, it was time to get serious and get back to governing responsibly. Wasn’t it? [1]

Then followed four years of playing chicken with the well-being of the Republic. That series of crises culminated in the government shutdown of 2013, when the executive branch was very nearly put in the impossible situation of being obligated to carry out Congress’ appropriations bills, but forbidden to raise the money by either taxing or borrowing. Crazy ideas like the trillion-dollar coin bounced around, because they were no crazier than everything else that was happening.

At the time, Republicans’ poll numbers dropped, and there was some thought that the voters might punish the party in 2014. But in fact the exact opposite happened: The voters gave them control of the Senate too.

But now, with control of both houses, they have something to prove. Don’t they? In January as the new completely-Republican-controlled Congress opened, John McCain expressed the party line:

I think a majority [of Republicans] recognize that we have to govern responsibly. We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016.

Two months later, DHS is living paycheck to paycheck, because House Republicans are mad as hell about immigration. They don’t have a coherent plan to undo President Obama’s executive actions, and they certainly don’t have an immigration plan of their own [2], but they’re mad! They have to do … something.

Meanwhile, we’re now up to 50 votes repealing ObamaCare, and not a single one on a Republican plan to replace it. Republicans nearly all acknowledge that parts of ObamaCare should be kept. (The part about pre-existing conditions, for example.) But coming up with a plan that actually does that? Making the compromises necessary to pass it into law? You’ve got to be kidding.

Discipline. In years past, the voters played the wait-til-your-father-gets-home role in American politics. A little bit of posturing and headline-grabbing was fine, even expected. But if a political temper tantrum gave the public reason to doubt the basic functions of government, somebody would pay come the next election.

Democrats, media pundits, and would-be grown-ups among the Republicans (i.e., McCain, Boehner, and McConnell) keep trying to invoke that discipline. But think about it: In 2013, for the sake of a plan that never had any chance of working, the Republican back-benchers shut down the government and very nearly broke the full faith and credit of the United States. And 13 months later, the voters gave their party more power.

We live in a new world, where Dad isn’t coming home and there’s no reason the kids should ever finish their vegetables and go to bed.

It’s time we understood how this new world works.

The difference between the parties. A cynical view of politics says that the two parties are just mirror images of each other, rival gangs competing for territory like West Side Story‘s Jets and Sharks.

But there is one key difference between the two: Democrats believe that government can change people’s lives for the better, and that we can do things together that we can’t do for ourselves. Together, we can have parks and libraries and public schools and clean air. We can soften the dog-eat-dog aspects of the capitalist system so that ordinary people have a chance. We can insure each other against disasters from hurricanes to cancer.

Republicans believe that government can only screw things up.

So when Republicans govern well, they refute themselves. If a Republican official solves a problem — like Mitt Romney did with health care in Massachusetts — it just creates an appetite for more government.

And that’s bad. To really prove the point that government can only screw things up, Republicans elected to office need to screw things up.

Turnout, not persuasion. In the old model of politics, there were “swing voters” — voters not identified with either party, who were open to persuasion. Each side had its partisans, but the one that convinced the swing voters would win.

One thing that swing voters found convincing was performance; that was where the discipline came from. If you made the United States look like a joke, they’d vote you out.

But that’s not how it works these days. Overwhelmingly, the people who care about politics enough to vote are identified with one party or the other, no matter what that party does. Today the question isn’t who you’ll vote for, it’s whether you’ll vote. (That’s how, for example, Mitt Romney got zero votes in some inner-city precincts of Philadelphia and Cleveland. Similarly, there were evangelical churches in the South where if you voted, you voted against Obama. So parties don’t bother trying to convince either set of voters, they just get their own to the polls.)

Take a look at how that works out in the vote totals for House races. (Data from Wikipedia.)

year Republican Democratic Total House split
2008 52,249,491 65,237,840 117,487,331 178-257
2010 44,827,441 38,980,192 83,807,633 242-193
2012 58,228,253 59,645,531 117,873,784 234-201
2014 40,024,866 35,626,309 75,651,175 247-188

A few things to notice:

  • Republicans got their biggest House majority in 2014, when they polled the fewest votes.
  • When there’s a big turnout, the Democrats win the popular vote, but when turnout is small, Republicans win. Another way to say the same thing is that the Republican vote is steadier than the Democratic vote. The lowest Republican vote (2014) is still more than two-thirds of the highest (2012), while the lowest Democratic vote (2014) is barely more than half the highest (2008). Conclusion: The people who might or might not vote are overwhelmingly Democrats.
  • Gerrymandering has locked in a certain amount of Republican advantage, so that winning the popular vote in 2012 didn’t get the Democrats control of the House.

Demographics. The big story after the 2012 election was that demographic trends favor the Democrats. The percentage of the country that is white shrinks every year, and Democrats are favored by non-whites. Young voters (who will be around for a while) trend Democratic, while old voters (who won’t) trend Republican. Christian voters (shrinking) trend Republican, while no-specified-religion voters (growing) trend Democratic.

Salivating over those delicious trends, Democrats started trying to predict the date when Texas turns blue. A report by College Republicans said that their party had to change: compromise on immigration and gay marriage, reach out to Hispanics, blacks, and young people.

None of those changes happened in 2014, and yet the GOP won big. How? The rising demographic groups didn’t vote.

Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.

Rather than continue its inexorable decline, the white vote increased from 72% in 2012 to 75% in 2014.

And that’s the secret to the lasting Republican congressional majority, and maybe to electing a Republican president in 2016: Don’t try to convince swing voters that Republicans can govern better than Democrats (or even govern at all). Just keep the rising demographic groups from voting.

No hope, no change. A portion of the blame/credit for the low turnout among minorities and youth in 2014 has to go to the intentional voter suppression Republicans have been focused on since 2010. They discovered that you don’t have to formally disenfranchise people to keep them away from the polls, you just have to make voting harder and less rewarding. Make people who don’t own cars (and so have no reason to already have a photo-ID drivers license) jump through an extra hoop. Make college students vote where their parents live. Gerrymander districts so that election results are a foregone conclusion. Shorten poll hours, make sure the lines are long in Democratic precincts, and so forth.

Marginal voters tend to have less slack in their lives than the more established non-urban whites of the Republican base. Getting to the polls is tougher, and standing in line for hours might mean you get fired or the kids are left unsupervised. So sure, each new hurdle in front of the voting booth is going to discourage more Democrats than Republicans.

That all has some effect, and will probably have more and more as it becomes normal and fails to provoke the backlash that motivated blacks (in particular) in 2012. But the real secret to lasting Republican power is motivational, or rather, de-motivational: Ruin people’s hope that politics can change their lives for the better.

People get involved in politics because they believe it can stop a war, save a school, jail the bankers who wrecked the economy, open doors for their racial group, give working people a chance, or secure their future against disasters of all sorts. They run away from politics when it looks like one of those pointless internet flame wars. Life is short and energy is limited. If politics is a waste of time, people who aren’t already committed to it will stay away — especially if their lives are hard enough already.

So when the marginal voters would vote against you, dysfunction becomes a strategy. Republican ideology already says that government can’t do anything but screw up. So if Congress is seen as just a bunch of jokers, that proves their point. If even the most obvious bill becomes impossible to pass, and the federal government lurches from crisis to crisis without doing anything that helps people … what better voter suppression is there?

Democrats need hope and change to motivate people to be active and vote. Republicans need no hope and no change to keep them tuned out. And they’re getting it.

That’s how we have the perverse polling we’ve seen: Just before the 2014 election, National Journal found only 9% approved of the job Congress was doing while 80% disapproved. In a Pew Research poll, disapproval of the Republican Party has been consistently running 68/23 neighborhood, compared to Democrats’ somewhat less unfavorable 60/32 split. And that led to increasing the Republican House majority and giving them control of the Senate too.

Why? National Journal has the answer: Americans wish the parties would co-operate more, but don’t believe they will. So:

More of those surveyed looked outside the political system for changes that might improve their lives.

What next? Whether or not we stop paying FBI agents next Friday, don’t expect Republicans in Congress to stop playing games with the government. And yes, it will drive down the popularity of Congress and of the Republican Party.

But so what? That dysfunction will also convince more Americans to lose faith in politics. More and more, voting will become that pointless thing old white people do. And why would you campaign for a candidate or donate to a campaign, unless you represent a special interest that needs to buy a favor?

Winning the House in 2010 gave Republicans the power to screw things up in Washington. And marginal voters responded to the screwed-up state of politics by staying home in 2014 and giving Republicans control of the Senate as well. Maybe they now have the power to screw things up on a grand enough scale to elect a Republican president in 2016.

But, then, surely, with control of both Congress and the White House, Republicans will have to take governing seriously. Won’t they?

Don’t count on it.

[1] It’s worth giving some thought to exactly what “responsible governing” would mean, so that it isn’t just thrown around as a buzzword.

In general, responsible governing means compromising to find a way forward that can be passed into law, rather than turning everything into a test of ideological purity. Finding a workable compromise is something a politician should be proud of, not a shameful act that can only be accomplished under the threat of a dire emergency.

Responsible governing also means being for something, rather than just criticizing everybody else’s solutions. Don’t like President Obama’s immigration plan? Fine. Tell me yours.

Above all, responsible governing means an end to hostage-taking, i.e., threatening to do something that nobody wants if you don’t get your way. Compromise means weighing what I want against what you want. But when one of us starts threatening to do things that nobody wants, we’re playing a different game entirely. The debt ceiling is the clearest example of a hostage — nobody really wants to see the United States default on its legal commitments — but nobody wants to see DHS shut down either.

It’s weird that the people most committed to ideological purity and most opposed to compromise claim to be representing the point of view of the Founders. The Founders were champion compromisers. The United States wouldn’t exist at all if they weren’t.

[2] Marco Rubio had an immigration plan, but has been making what Bloomberg Politics called an “apology tour” for daring to pass it through the Senate. If it had become law, hara-kari would have been his only honorable option.

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  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Brilliant insight.

    • weeklysift  On March 2, 2015 at 11:05 am

      This must be a really scary blog, if even the people who say NICE things need to stay anonymous. Thank you, whoever you are.

      • Al Jette  On March 2, 2015 at 9:51 pm

        My oldest son is pretty smart. WHen he was twenty I worried that he was going to totally drop out and he would not promise to be a street bum. He was fed up with politics Could not see how anything would get done. Circa 1995. Now it’s my turn. How do we keep the GOP from so totally making my vote, your vote, irrelevant? How did the DEMs allow the 2010 elections to happen. That was a census year. States were won by the GOP and we’ve now got embedded congress people. Thanks for writing this,

      • way2gosassy  On March 3, 2015 at 4:13 am

        Your welcome!

  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2015 at 11:26 am

    I’m 27. The first time I voted (at age 18 and from college, so via absentee ballot), it didn’t count because I didn’t have a witness sign my ballot (at age 18, I thought nobody else was supposed to SEE my ballot). This past election, I tried to vote absentee again, but my efforts were once again wasted because I didn’t fill out the registration form. Since I registered when I was 18, I didn’t think I needed to re-register…mostly because I had my mother visit our home voting station, ask someone for specific instructions on this, and relay to me over the phone that I shouldn’t need to complete the extra form. Voting absentee certainly seems to involve an awful lot of hoop-jumping, but I go to the effort to do it because I want to vote in my home state rather than one I’m only living in temporarily. I wish it was easier and more straightforward – or that those who are supposed to answer my questions on how to do it didn’t give me wrong answers. Though I’m certainly not blameless for it, I hate that in the handful of times I’ve been able to vote in my life, almost half of them were not counted.

  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2015 at 11:42 am

    As always, food for thought. This reinforces for me why voter suppression has been such a main drive in the last two elections. An apathetic voter doesn’t spank.

    We know that post-Citizen’s United and related dark money rulings, that regular voters can’t outspend people like the Koch brother except through serious concentrated fund raising. This is especially critical in the state and local elections where there are fewer regular voters to offset the wealth of a corporate or hyperwealthy donor. So why haven’t we gone straight to the kind of blatant corruption seen in a lot of third-world countries? Maybe because the people who can afford to buy an election still need the moral authority to govern (or pretend to govern). Or maybe it’s because the American public is still a rich cow for corporate milking.

  • Bill Camarda  On March 2, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Perfectly stated. I would add only two breathtakingly obvious points:

    1. Problems that are ignored get worse. Previously, both liberals and conservatives were willing to acknowledge the existence of problems, and in some cases, the same problems. Today’s conservatives see discussion of these problems as nothing more than the first step in picking their pockets. They therefore oppose solving problems in principle. Unless you think there are no problems, this is a recipe for disaster.

    2. Democracies fail if they do not engage their citizens. Unless you do not believe in democracy at all, the strategy of demotivating millions of voters and systematically disengaging them from civic activity is fundamentally destructive of your country. All over the world, democracies have failed as a result of the precise types of cynicism and disengagement that today’s Republicans have made the centerpiece of their strategy. Some would call this behavior profoundly anti-American.

  • Thom  On March 2, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    I could never reconcile Republican disdain for governing at all with their worship of the military. The things I’ve seen first hand would make any small government conservative weep.

    I even see republicans angry at supposed “defunding of the military” even though maintaining the same budget now that two wars have just ended it absurd.

    Once the birthday party’s over you don’t keep stockpiling cake and ice cream.

  • coastcontact  On March 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    John Boehner’s words are key to 2016. “I think a majority [of Republicans] recognize that we have to govern responsibly. We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016.”

    The GOP has opened the door to the challenge: Can the GOP govern? It is starting to appear the answer is NO. Democrats are being handed the argument for continuing control of the presidency. A gift to Hillary Clinton.

  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Good stuff as usual. Very minor point; the FBI is not a part of DHS.

  • Roy  On March 3, 2015 at 8:20 am

    Certainly voter suppression and gerrymandering bear some of the blame for the Republican majorities, but the Democrats aren’t blameless.
    There’s a reason all those young people who liked Obama’s message of “hope and change” didn’t turn out again, and that’s because they didn’t see much effort on the Democrats part to deliver on that promise. Yes, the ACA is better than what we had before, but it is still a Republican plan that is a giveaway to the Ins. companies, and still leaves millions uncovered. Hardly the universal healthcare that the Dem. platform has called for for decades.
    After watching the big banks blow up the economy under Bush, those young voters then watched as the Obama Justice dept. did nothing to prosecute any of them, and in fact have watched the “too big to fail” banks only get bigger.
    Now the president wants fast track authority on the TPP, another Republican idea, which will be disastrous for manufacturing and consumer protection in this country.
    The fact is the only real differences between the parties are on social issues. When it comes to economics, they both dance to the tune called by the wealthy. Hardly a strong motivator.

    • FFG  On March 5, 2015 at 10:10 pm

      “When it comes to economics, they both dance to the tune called by the wealthy. ”

      This is greatly influenced by the way that we fund elections. Campaigns are privately funded, and each one costs millions of dollars. A tiny fraction of the 1% fund political campaigns, so politicians have their attention on the funders, not the majority of the people in the states and districts that they supposedly represent. The MayDay PAC is working to change that. (

    • weeklysift  On March 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      I’ll quibble about one thing and agree with something else. The quibble: I think the Democrats dance reluctantly to the tune of Big Money, while the Republicans dance enthusiastically. That may not sound like much, but in the long run it makes a significant difference.

      The agreement: In the lead-up to 2014, Obama avoided doing anything about immigration or much of anything about global warming. Presumably, he was trying to save the Senate seats of Democrats in red states like Louisiana and North Carolina. Well guess what? We lost them anyway. We can only wonder what might have happened if a vigorously progressive president had raised turnout nationwide.

  • Amy Zucker Morgenstern  On March 6, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Great analysis.

    “And why would you campaign for a candidate or donate to a campaign, unless you represent a special interest that needs to buy a favor?”

    To what extent is voter cynicism due to a belief that the results have already been bought by and delivered to a few super-rich people, do you think?

    • weeklysift  On March 8, 2015 at 4:25 pm

      It can’t help. It also can’t help to hear pundits say that Jeb Bush has wrapped up the GOP nomination by capturing the big donors, when nobody has cast a vote yet.


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