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The Republican Death Spiral

It’s not just the goose egg that the House Republicans laid on the Democratic stimulus package yesterday: Boehner’s Boys have been equally uncooperative on other matters. Case in point: a bill yesterday to delay the transition to digital TV. This measure was approved unanimously by the Senate; every Senate Republican gave it the green light. But 155 out of 178 House Republicans voted against it, which resulted in the measure’s defeat since a two-thirds majority would have been required for passage under the House’s suspension of the rules.

Or, take the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a seemingly fairly popular/populist (if not inscrutable) piece of legislation on gender-based pay discrepancies. This was something that Barack Obama whacked John McCain on on the campaign trail, with McCain offering little rebuttal. In the Senate, five Republicans — out of 41 — voted with the Administration on Ledbetter, including all four Republican women. In the House, just three Republicans did — out of 178.

Boenher and Eric Cantor have obviously done an impressive job of rallying their troops — and Cantor, in particular, seems proud of his efforts. But what grander purpose does this strategy serve? The House Republicans are opposing popular legislation from a very popular President, and doing so in ways that stick a needle in the eye of the popular (if quixotic) concept of bipartisanship. They would seem to have little chance of actually blocking this legislation, since they are far short of a majority, and since the Senate Republicans, who can filibuster, have thus far shown little inclination to go along with them — with moderates like Susan Collins of Maine and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire voting routinely with the Administration.

As I have opined before, the Democratic message will essentially be one of two things in 2010:

1. Obama’s accomplished X, Y and Z and showed the country the way forward, let’s give him leaders in Congress who can continue to deliver for the middle class, or,

2. Obama accomplished X, but he couldn’t accomplish Y and Z because the Republicans obstructed those measures to protect the special interests … let’s put partisanship behind us and elect leaders in Congress who can represent the common good.

One can understand the Republicans betting against #1, which won’t work unless the economy recovers. But in so doing, they seem to be writing the Democrats’ taglines for them on #2, the partisanship message. Of course, this is not necessarily an easy hand for the Democrats to play: they at once have to maintain the continued pretense/appearance of bipartisanship while at the same time attacking them for their non-cooperation.

But surely the phrase “ZERO Republicans voted for the Recovery Package” is more likely to escape Democratic lips on the campaign trail in 2010 than Republican ones. If the stimulus bill proves to be unpopular — and it might well — a House Republican can tout the fact that he voted against the package. But with the unanimous vote — as well as the near-unanimity on measures like the Ledbetter Act and Digital TV — the Republicans remove the emphasis from their individual judgment to that of their party. It is not clear why they would want this: the Republican brand, even under the best of circumstances, is not likely to be significantly rehabilitated by 2010, especially when the Republicans do not have agenda-setting powers.

Perhaps there is some grander strategy here that, as a Democrat/liberal/progressive/whatever-you-want-to-call me, I’m simply not understanding. But one needs to remember that in the Republicans’ most recent opportunity to display their tactical genius — that of the McCain campaign — the best and brightest Republican minds proved to be neither very talented nor very bright.

Most fundamentally of all, the McCain campaign radically overestimated the importance of appealing to the base. House Republicans may be replicating their mistake. Self-described conservative Republicans represent only about 20 percent of the population. This base is not necessarily becoming smaller; it’s still alive and kicking. What is true, however, is that the (1) base has never been sufficient to form a winning electoral coalition, and (2) that there are fewer and fewer non-base (e.g. moderates, libertarian Republicans, Republican leaning-independents). As these moderates have fled the GOP, the party’s electoral fortunes have tanked. But simultaneously, they have had less and less influence on the Republican message.

Thus the Republicans, arguably, are in something of a death spiral. The more conservative, partisan, and strident their message becomes, the more they alienate non-base Republicans. But the more they alienate non-base Republicans, the fewer of them are left to worry about appeasing. Thus, their message becomes continually more appealing to the base — but more conservative, partisan, and strident to the rest of us. And the process loops back upon itself.

The other possibility, of course, is that John Boehner and Eric Cantor are not so much concerned about the future of the Republican party, but about the future of John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Cantor, in particular, is a media-savvy figure and someone with plausible presidential ambitions: one can easily imagine him trying to position himself as the new Gingrich. But the political climate is much different now than it was in 1993; he can’t erase either the damage wrought upon the Republican brand by the Bush administration, nor — at least in the near-term — Obama’s sky-high approval ratings. Perhaps the House Republicans voted against delaying the digital TV changeover because they don’t want Americans to see the carnage.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.