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Squabbling nonideological factions

So. One of the things about being with My Party at this juncture in American political history is that My Party appears to be largely unified and the other appears to be in disarray. The Conservatives could justifiably use the reverse of Will Rogers’ line: they don’t consider themselves part of any organized political Party: they’re Republicans. And, you know, tee hee. Because we’ve been the disorganized wackos for long enough.

On the other hand, it’s perplexing to me, here on my side, because for much of the twentieth century My Party was disorganized and chaotic because the competing policy demands of its factions were real—in the short term, the demands of labor and of the environmental movement (f’r’ex) were at odds. There were real tensions between the anti-war faction and the anti-Communist faction, and of course between the very real regional priorities and preferences. Balance! The Party worked very well, of course, even with all the jokes.

At the moment, though, the Other Party seems to be utterly dysfunctional without having real factions. I mean, yes, there are factions, but where are the policy differences between them? Is there a significant difference on policy goals between Senator Cruz and Senator McConnell, or between Representative Bachmann and Representative Ryan? Not a difference in what they think they can accomplish, mind you, but in what they would do if they could? Is there a faction of the Republican Party that would not, for instance, abolish the Department of Education? Is there substantial support in that party for increasing federal support for unemployment insurance, or for keeping it at the same levels? Are there a lot of votes in that caucus against so-called tort reform? Are there a lot of votes for returning taxes to 90s-levels? Are there a whole slew of pro-choice Republicans in the Congress?

Even at the moment, when the party appears to be riven and the factions are sniping at each other in the press, I can’t see a lot of daylight between them. I’m not the only one to notice this. Jon Bernstein has been hocking about it for years. More recently, Mike Konczal over at the Washington Post Wonkblog writes that The Tea Party thinks it hates Wall Street. It doesn’t. There are others I can’t find at the moment, too, but also, there’s this from the Washington Post’s news article Senate leaders race to draft debt-limit bill after House effort collapses, by Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane:

He started the day by convening a 9 a.m. meeting of his rank and file, a session that opened with a prayerful group sing-along to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But as Boehner began searching for items to attach to the debt-limit bill, his majority quickly dis¬≠integrated into squabbling ideological factions.

Boehner’s initial proposal was to include two provisions that would have given conservatives some small measure of satisfaction in exchange for ending the government shutdown and raising the debt limit. One would have delayed a tax on medical devices that helps finance the new health-care law. The other would have ended employer-provided health subsidies given to lawmakers and members of the executive branch, who are required to join the new health-care exchanges.

But conservatives quickly complained that it wasn’t enough. The bill would not cut spending, they said, or reform entitlement programs, or erase a clause in the health law that requires employers to provide coverage for contraception. And it clearly would not achieve their ultimate goal of ending the program they call Obamacare.

The squabbling ideological factions have, as far as I can tell, the same ideology as far as policy is concerned. The actual policies—cutting spending, reforming entitlement programs (or “reforming” “entitlement” programs) reducing contraception and repealing the Affordable Care Act—are all fully supported by the entire caucus. As for the earlier offers, it seems to me that conservatives are also united behind (a) reducing the total compensation of federal workers, and (2) not implementing new taxes. And as far as I can tell, they are very nearly united against paying for programs in general, but my point really isn’t to take cheap shots at the Other Party. My point is that the factions described as ideological don’t seem to have anything to do with political ideology at all.

Frankly, the difference as it looks from here is that some small number of legislators from the Other Party believe in following norms of behavior, the bulk are happy to violate norms of behavior as long as they get something out of it, and then there are a handful who seem (as I say, from my point of view) to believe in violating norms of behavior as a principle, even when it costs them.

Which sure doesn’t seem very Conservative to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


From this morning's New York Times: With G.O.P. Badly Divided, Boehner Is Left ‘Herding Cats’, by Ashley Parker and Jeremy W. Peters. I'm pulling out this:

Mr. Boehner initially tried to unite his conference around a plan that had a little bit for everyone. For his hard-line conservative members, Mr. Boehner’s proposal would have eliminated government contributions for the purchase of health insurance on the new exchanges for lawmakers, White House officials and their staffs, as well as forbidden the Treasury Department to use “extraordinary measures” to extend its borrowing capabilities. For his more moderate members, Mr. Boehner offered a simple appeal — his plan would have reopened the government through Dec. 15, and extended the nation’s borrowing authority through Feb. 7.

Again: who are the moderate members for whom the concessions given to the conservative hardliners are not actually preferred policies? It doesn't say.

On the other hand, Ross Douthat, the Op-Ed columnist whose job it is to see the Conservative side of things writes Policy and the G.O.P. Civil War, in which he makes the case that the Intransigents, as he calls them (and it's a very good name for them, too) have policy differences with the establishment, and furthermore claims that they have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. And yes, he does connect that branding to differences in policies, not just hanging a big banner over the old ones and hoping no-one notices.


I think you may be misinterpreting somewhat the nature of the bargaining as it went down. The things being offered to what the NYT article calls "hard-line conservatives" may be policy preferences for the more moderate Republicans, but the more moderate Republicans don't need to be offered them as a compensation for having to reopen the government and not getting to default on the debt. There is a segment of the Republican caucus for whom shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt are not bargaining chips to get something else that they want, but goals in themselves. Boehner is not telling them what they will get for giving up their hostages but what they will get for agreeing not to blow up the U.S. economy because the rest of their caucus doesn't actually want to.

The ideological division within the House Republicans is a division between those for whom shutting down government and defaulting on the debt are ends in themselves and those for whom such tactics are just a useful threat for achieving other ends. Outside of the House, there is surely a third ideological faction that doesn't view shutting down the government and threatening to default on the debt as appropriate tactics, but that faction is not much in evidence in the House of Representatives.

Clarification: "there is surely among Republicansa third ideological faction that doesn't view shutting down the government and threatening to default on the debt as appropriate tactics, but that faction is not much in evidence among House Republicans."

I see your point, Chris, but it seems that the so-called moderate conservatives were portrayed as offering concessions that they themselves want enacted. My impression is that when, f'r'ex, the environmentalist faction and the labor faction gave concessions it was more like 'we accept this endangered-species protection regulation we don't like (because we believe it's a job-killer) if you accept these exemptions that you don't like (because you believe they create huge loopholes).' In this case, it's more like 'we both like pie, so if you stop setting fire to our house, we can both have pie'. The people 'giving' the concession are actually getting the pie they want, too. Only of course the bargaining was all a sham from the beginning, because there wasn't any pie and there wasn't any way to get any pie. The 'concessions' from Speaker Boehner to the Intransigents were never going to pass the Senate and be signed by the President, and everyone knew it.

I do think it's an open question whether the Intransigents have as their ideological principle shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt, as you say, or violating norms of behavior, as I say, or extortion, as Jon Bernstein has been saying. They all seem plausible explanations for their behavior, and they all seem like the opposite of conservatism as I understand it.


I don't understand this at all, and I'm not really paying attention. That said, random thoughts...

> There is a segment of the Republican caucus for whom shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt are not bargaining chips to get something else that they want, but goals in themselves.

That seems crazy to me. Just batshit insane. My metaphor has been that if you want to save energy in your house, you turn down the thermostat, you don't take a sledgehammer to the furnace. Unless you sincerely believe that your house is so messed up that it's going to explode unless you take out that furnace, or something. But that's pretty, well, batshit insane.

(But I've seen stories about people like this. People who claim to seriously believe that President Obama is a Muslim and that if the government reopens, he's going to establish an Islamic theocracy. Or things that are similarly, well, batshit insane. So maybe these people really do believe that wrecking the furnace and huddling together in the dark for warmth is the best way to something something mumble something, but, just, I don't even. What.)

Another thought is that the stories of the crazy Obama-is-a-Muslim people are anecdotes, not data, and that certainly no elected official actually believes that. In which case maybe this is just them having talked themselves into thinking that They Are Being Tough and that it's Important To Take A Stand, and having said that, can't bring themselves to admit that this isn't really what they wanted at all. In the way that, say, a four year old, when she hears that her lunch will not have eight gigante beans, because there are only seven beans left in the jar, will say "oh good, because I only wanted seven beans". Or other acts of childish stubbornness -- that they just feel Committed TM to it at this point, and can't figure out how to give up.

As to ideological divisions, libertarians thought for a while that the Republican Party was divided between big-government social conservatives and libertarians. I don't know if that's still the consensus these days, but I've pretty much given up on that theory. Or, at least, that the Republican "libertarians" actually believe any of that shit, because when they controlled *all three branches of government*, for *years and years and years*, they didn't do a single damn libertarian thing about it, they went mad with power and spent other people's money like drunken horny sailors. Maybe people whose last name is "Paul" are serious about it, but they're evidently not influential enough to do anything about it when they're actually in power. (http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/local_coverage/2013/10/rand_paul_shutdown_as_an_anti_obamacare_tactic_was_a_bad_idea claims that Paul is of course anti-Obamacare, but never supported the shutdown; which seems like what a sane libertarian would think. But the rest of the "libertarian" Republicans can bite me.)

Well, on the libertarian point, I have to say I have no idea which Party a libertarian would best ally himself with, as neither party concurs with the principles of libertarianism at all, so the places of policy overlap will be random and temporary. And as far as Sen. Paul supporting or not supporting the shutdown, there were certainly places where he (and Senators McCain and Collins and others who claimed to oppose the shutdown) could have voted with the majority to get to 60 and did not, which from my angle is clearly supporting the shutdown—I don't know whether sending something to the House earlier would have forced the Speaker to schedule the vote earlier, but it would have increased the pressure.

On the batshit insane point, though… should I write a whole note about political science and styles of representation? Essentially, it seems to me that a bunch of Gohmerts (if you'll pardon my language) who ran for office specifically on the platform of I'm Batshit Insane, specifically I hate Our Only President more than the other guy, and I believe many untrue things about him and furthermore Bengazi/Agenda21/Ayers/Kenya/IRS/Wolverines! So there's a sense in which these legislators, having made a pact with their constituents to be batshit insane, would be violating that electoral trust were they to act sanely. And that's true whether these Gohmerts (excuse me) have shit the full bat or are just play-acting their shitbattery.


I have no joke (nor further insightful comment), I just like saying "shitbattery".

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