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What we have in Washington is something of a political death spiral. It's a little complicated to understand, but bear with me. In this morning's Politico we're treated to the following choice quote:
“Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?” said one senior House Republican aide who requested anonymity to discuss the matter freely. “I just don’t want to co-own the economy by having to tout that we passed a jobs bill that won’t work or at least won’t do enough.”
You need to think carefully about this quote. Implied in its logic is the idea that House Republicans can avoid any ownership of a bad economy if they continue to refuse to take any meaningful action to improve it. They can stonewall the president and the public will simply blame the president. The Republicans actually believe this. To see why, let's go back to Mike Lofgren's piece from two weeks ago. Remember that Mr. Lofgren is a career Republican staffer who resigned in disgust after the debt ceiling debacle. He explains the Republicans' strategic thinking on obstruction:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Why does this work? Lofgren explains that, too.
There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard."
To this I need to add that plenty of quite well-informed voters have a rather inaccurate impression of the presidency's legislative powers. If the president can't get Congress to do anything on the economy, it makes him look weak, but that is only because the executive branch's control over the legislative branch is quite limited in our constitutional system. The Republicans' obstruction may make them less popular than a skunk at the prom, but it brings down the president's numbers, too. Ultimately, they'll argue that if the president can't persuade Congress to act, the people need to find a president who can.
It shouldn't need to be said, but this is obviously putting raw politics ahead of helping people find a job. In a just world, the House Republicans would be severely punished. Yet, they sincerely think the benefits of hurting the president outweigh the benefits of putting people to work. They think a weak economy and an ineffectual president are better for them politically, and that they'll win even though no institution in America is less popular than the Republicans. They think proving that the government doesn't work will benefit them in the long-run, too. Why trust government to do anything if they can't even pay their bills on time?
Yet, congressional leaders in the Republican Party are not quite as convinced that they can get away with blowing off the president's American Jobs Act. They can read the polls and they know the people are fed-up with their obstruction. They know a motivated president has a big megaphone. They want to pass something, even if only to avoid getting blasted for intransigence.
Here's where the death spiral comes in. Because two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the job House and Senate Republicans are doing, the GOP doesn't stand a chance in next year's elections if the president is popular or the economy is noticeably on the mend. Their only chance is to continue to chop away at the president, keep as many people jobless as possible, and hope that the "pox on both their houses" narrative is the dominant one with the electorate next year.
The president is "on the ropes," but so are the Republicans. As a result, there's a split in the GOP. Boehner and Cantor want to work with the president and pass at least some parts of his plan. But RNCC Chairman Pete Sessions, who is responsible for recruiting House candidates and keeping control of the House, is less conciliatory.
“To assume that we’re naturally for these things because we’ve been for them does not mean we will be for them if they cause debt, if they [have] tax increases and if they take money from the free-enterprise sector, which creates jobs,” said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who heads up the House Republican campaign arm...
...“I have great respect for everybody in Republican leadership,” Sessions said. “I found what the president said to be out of balance; … It’s fair to give any [proposal by the] president [a chance] out of respect to him, but also we need to look at the substance.”
Of course, the president has asked Congress to fully pay for his jobs package, so it shouldn't cause any increase in debt. The Republicans are against the jobs bill because they've made themselves so unpopular that they're relying on people hating the government, the president, and the Democrats almost as much as they hate the Republicans. Yet, they're not united on how far they can push that strategy. It's worked for them so far. It's worked tragically well.