Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How Did We Get Here?

Mark Schmitt is a smart guy, but even he gets it wrong some time.
Like Brad DeLong, I too am interested in why Mark Schmitt's November 2008 forecast of what would happen in the the 111th Congress and the first half of Obama's first term proved to be so off the mark. Not because this sort of navel-gazing is more pleasant than contemplating the likely 50-seat swing in the House (which would basically return the House to its orientation as of election day 2006), even though it is, but because we need to understand why Schmitt's model of the behavior of the rump GOP was so far off the mark. I remember reading this piece in 2008 and thinking that while it told the story of one plausible future, there was another plausible future where the small GOP minority was less accommodationist, since the accommodationists had largely been the losers of the previous two election cycles. But I wasn't sure which future we would end up in. I can come up with a number of explanations for why we ended up in the bad future as opposed to the good one.
  • Failure to resist temptation of the straight-line projection. A President or President-elect is always more popular right after an electoral victory than they are during typical day-to-day polls. Schmitt, like many of us, simply didn't do enough to account for the inevitable regression to the mean that Presidents face.
  • Electoral pressure, or the lack thereof. If Janet Napolitano and Tom Vilsack were running for Senate instead of holding cabinet positions, would John McCain and Chuck Grassley be more moderate? It's hard to say, but it certainly wouldn't have hurt. (though Vilsack and Napolitano would have to figure out how to avoid the stain of the sagging economy as their terms came to an end).
  • Overestimating the gumption of moderate House/Senate Republicans. This seems like an obvious error. Mark Schmitt spent many of his formative years during the 1980s, when bipartisan Senate coalitions were still the norm, and during the mid-1990s, when, at least after the government shutdown, Congressional Republicans found themselves forced by the President to engage in a modest amount of bipartisanship, even though by that point partisan alignment and ideological alignment were nearly matched up. Schmitt also probably thought that Obama's style would be conducive to what he called the "1/21 Project" of cleaving the conservative party from the nihilist party, looking at examples of GOP implosion in places like New Jersey and Illinois to predict the future. First of all, Obama has been at least somewhat successful here; getting Arlen Specter to switch parties was a real coup. Second, several remaining possible moderates announced retirements, most notably George Voinovich. Third, the whole idea of successfully separating the Conservatives from the Nihilists relies on their being enough Conservatives to form a cohesive bloc. But with only Snowe and Collins (and now Scott Brown) as plausible negotiating partners, with a rare assist from someone like Dick Lugar or Chuck Grassley, there is no safety in number for the handful of Senate moderates. In the House the situation is worse, with only five or six plausible moderate members trying to buck the entirety of the GOP caucus.
  • Underestimating the depth of the recession. It's true that some people predicted the recession would be incredibly dire. But a lot of people did in fact look at the unemployment numbers and the size of the stimulus and think that the Obama Administration's projections were at least reasonable. The problem is that our economic elite have not yet adjusted to the new reality of recessions wherein recovery in job growth remains incredibly slow even as GDP and profits return to positive territory.
There are certainly other possibilities. Why do you think the Republicans chose the road they did?
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