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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gridlock and the Craving for Big Elections

As part of a debate touched off by Matt Yglesias at Vox, who expressed doubts about the sustainability of the U.S. political system given the frustrations and Constitution-stretching associated with partisan gridlock, I wrote a column at TPMCafe suggesting a much more realistic problem: that gridlock is already creating a craving for big, consequential elections producing transformative governing agendas, which in turn undermines the willingness to do anything about day-to-day gridlock. I also alluded to a piece by Jonathan Chait at New York arguing that gridlock would likely be undermined by demographic changes that made Republicans less reliant on government-hating southern white voters.

My most immediate concern, because we can already see it happening, is that partisan/ideological gridlock will feed on itself. As routine policy accomplishments achieved piecemeal via the normal legislative process fade, people in both parties will increasingly focus on taking full advantage of rare governing opportunities produced by exceptional electoral victories to shoot for the moon. After all, as Democrats discovered in 2010, House majorities and Senate supermajorities can be lost instantly. So a maximalist approach when in power–as ideologues of the left and the right invariably call for–could become routine, encouraging the “losing” party at such junctures to obstruct as much of the governing party’s agenda as possible and to pursue their own shoot-the-moon strategies in the future.
Call it the Big Bang Theory of Polarization. The only limitation on its operation, of course, is that winning the big electoral victories necessary to pull off an ideological Big Bang could require the kind of flexibility that thwarts ideologues. That is indeed Chait’s hope. But it ignores the possibility of a two-track partisan strategy based squarely on deception.
In 2012, for example, Republicans were planning a post-election agenda based on implementing the audacious Paul Ryan budget and the repeal of Obamacare in one budget reconciliation bill–even as Mitt Romney was on the campaign trail posing as the soul of moderation. Something very similar actually happened in 2001, when the “humble” and “pragmatic” George W. Bush, that supposed paragon of bipartisanship in Texas, took office after a disputed presidential campaign and immediately pursued a tax package that shaped all domestic politics for at least a decade.
And after 9/11, of course, Bush also launched one or two (depending on how you reckon Afghanistan) “wars of choice”–because he could. Perhaps Chait is right that the demographic foundation for this kind of Rovian politics of saying one thing on the campaign trail and then doing five things in office is eroding. But don’t forget the power of Republicans at the state level to continuously shore up that foundation by making it harder for young people and minorities to vote. And it’s also worth remembering that governance-enabling landslides are as often the product of external circumstances and coincidences–you know, the much-discussed fundamentals–as of moderate appeals to swing voters that are implemented by bipartisan governance.

I don’t think Democrats are as addicted to the idea of a great gettin-up morning that will enable them to implement all their dreams; indeed, there’s a lot of sentiment that aside from the Affordable Care Act, Democrats did not get a lot out of their 2008 landslide (short-circuited to a considerable extent by Scott Brown’s Senate victory early in 2010). But assuming gridlock continues, and Obama shows the limits of what can be achieved by executive actions, the craving for a landslide may spread through both parties.

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