Liberals have converged on a consensus about Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans: The party’s rejectionist strategy for dealing with Barack Obama (oppose everything, filibuster everything) has been electorally brilliant yet has cost Republicans when it comes to results on policies.
I agree on the policy point. But I disagree with them on the political part. The electoral benefits of rejectionism remain unproven. Just because Republicans won big in the midterms after McConnell and his allies in Congress used the rejectionist strategy doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.
We need to take apart three pieces here.
One is conservative antipathy toward Obama. That was inevitable for conservatives inside and outside Congress, no matter what strategy the party as a whole was following. Those who cut deals would always be seen as Republicans in Name Only to the conservative media. This alone meant that few if any of Obama’s achievements were seen as bipartisan.
The second is unhappiness about the U.S. economy. That – and not Obama’s failure to “fix Washington” – is most responsible for his mediocre approval rating and Democratic losses in both midterms. Was Republican rejectionism partly responsible for the slow recovery?
Perhaps the economy would have recovered more strongly if Republicans hadn’t provoked the budget and debt-limit crises in 2011, 2012 and 2013; succeeded in slashing spending at the federal, state and local levels; and blocked Obama’s jobs package and the additional stimulus he sought. Yet it’s hard to draw a line on how much of that was sheer rejectionism and how much was opposition based on Republican principles.
Finally, there’s the pure McConnell-led rejectionism: the filibusters on judges Republicans didn’t even oppose, the pressure on moderate Republicans to stop bargaining for concessions, and more. I’m not convinced any of that made much of a difference to Obama’s approval or, through that, to voters.
The health care act passed with support from enough Republicans, for example, yet it was still going to be unpopular. Conservatives were going to hate it no matter what, and the costs were going to be more visible than the benefits for most people.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans went from 48 Senate seats (a majority) to only 34 over a similar span, at what is considered a low point of partisanship in congressional history. Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats were clobbered in 1966 and 1968 after plenty of congressional Republican support for civil rights, Medicare and the war in Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan had both widely acknowledged victories on policy and a relatively fair amount of bipartisanship in his presidency, yet his Republicans were reduced from 53 to 45 senators from 1981 to 1987. During President George W. Bush’s presidency, especially his first term, Democrats probably came as close to cooperation as is possible in the current era, and Republicans still lost plenty of seats during his presidency.
The bottom line is that being in the White House is bad for a party in subsequent elections even when the president is popular, and being in the White House during bad times is even worse. That’s true during eras of partisan cooperation and partisan polarization.
Yes, it’s possible that McConnell’s strategy in Congress was a small electoral plus. Senator Bob Dole’s similar response to the 1992 elections may have hurt Democrats a bit in 1994. But mostly, it’s just the economy and holding the White House that have hurt Democrats. Most of what Republicans have done has been irrelevant – when it hasn’t been actively harmful.
*This doesn’t mean there were no clashes; the basic condition of partisan polarization is that virtually all Democrats are more liberal than virtually all Republicans, so natural alliances that were available in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are simply no longer there. On taxes, however, Democrats generally did exactly what McConnell didn’t do: Moderates cut their best deal, while liberals opposed Bush. On education and terrorism, Democrats worked with Republicans. And while Democrats did ratchet up use of the filibuster against appellate judges, they didn’t insist on a 60-vote Senate for everything.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.