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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bernstein: GOP May Be Too Unhinged to Change

Jonathan Bernstein’s “It’s Still About the Broken GOP” at The Washington Monthly makes the case that “gridlock is a normal part of the system,” but makes a distinction in noting that ” we have a good deal of dysfunctional gridlock in the present system.” Further, explains Bernstein:

…Dysfunctional gridlock — the kind that not only delays “common sense” solutions but also does things like leaving executive branch and judicial positions vacant, threatening to default the government of the United States, and (perhaps) encourages and then allows a party which loses an election to attempt to undermine the economy in order to secure future electoral advantage. The question is whether that sort of dysfunctional gridlock is partisan polarization or not….
…I do not believe that partisan polarization makes dysfunctional gridlock likely. It’s not partisan polarization that’s the problem; it’s the broken, radical Republican Party. Essentially, party polarization isn’t nearly as important as the array of problems within the GOP — antagonism to compromise as an organizing principle; a closed information loop dominated by the Republican-aligned press; a conservative marketplace which blunts the electoral incentive for much of the party; and loss of interest in and capacity for public policy. Without those internal dysfunctions, even an extremely conservative Republican Party would be able to cut deals and allow the political system to function relatively smoothly even with divided government; with those internal dysfunctions, the current system works poorly but any other system would be equally disastrous or worse.

Bernstein adds that the prevailing notion in the Republican party seems to be that “compromise itself is seen as a disaster.” He argues that “the system can handle polarization between two healthy political parties just fine…What’s really needed is some thought about what it would take to cure what’s broken with the GOP.” It’s a daunting challenge, as Bernstein explains:

…Some will argue that it’s a problem that’s self-correcting: a broken party will lose elections, and we do know that ideologically extreme parties tend to moderate after extended electoral loss. I worry, however, that the current GOP isn’t normal enough to follow that pattern. I worry about the conservative marketplace and the downgrading of the electoral incentive. I worry about the information loop, and the inability of even those Republicans who want to win elections to correctly diagnose what it takes to do so. I worry that those who do stay in touch with reality tend to be exiled from the party. And I worry that the electoral incentive for moderation simply isn’t great enough to overcome all of that.
Mostly, however, I worry that it’s not really just a question of ideological positioning. If Republicans really believe that compromise is evil, then it doesn’t really matter whether the ideological gap between their position and the Democratic position is narrow or wide.
…If I’m correct that the Republican Party is really broken, then “fixing” the system to allow electoral winners to get their way easily is extremely dangerous because sooner or later that broken Republican Party will win but be incapable of governing well. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Bernstein commends Ezra Klein for debunking “fairy tales about magic presidents,” which prevent progressives from effectively addressing current political realities. He argues further,

…The job of reformers is mostly about finding fixes for those institutions which have been trampled by the dysfunctional GOP, fixes which restore, in many cases, norms which worked fine but have been lost. So Senate reform should be about finding rules to restore what was good about the Senate before it became a 60-vote Senate.

As Americans become increasingly frustrated by the dysfunctional gridlock Bernstein cites, he believes that “it would be a great tragedy indeed if the strengths of the US political system are abandoned” by reckless reforms. Looking toward the 2014 mid term elections, the unusually large number of vulnerable U.S. Senate seats held by Democrats and the GOP’s 17 seat edge in the House add some resonance to Bernstein’s contention. The 60 vote requirement for a Senate majority must be changed. But the better short term priority is mobilizing our resources for a Democratic upset in 2014.

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