Wow: Cooperation. Should Obama Get Credit?

We saw it on the “fiscal cliff”: enough House Republicans voted for the deal, along with most Democrats, to get something passed.

Republicans backed down on the debt ceiling.

On immigration, we’re also seeing the two parties working together to craft a solution.

This feels like a possible sea change.

Should Obama get credit? He’s stuck to a vision, a “hope,” for bipartisan cooperation over the last four years, an approach that many or most liberals considered pie-in-the-sky, weak-principled, downright lacking in cojones.

So here’s my question about an imagined counterfactual: if Obama had played hard(er)ball over the last four years, steamrolled Republicans and taken hard negotiation lines in ways that liberals have been clamoring for and that might even have worked (hard to say), where would we be at today?

Here’s a clue, showing the state of the game: the NYT just revealed that Republican and Democrats in the House and Senate have been meeting secretly to work on the immigration issue for four years.

Why secretly? Not far to guess: because any Republican who appeared to be working with Democrats on that conservative third rail would open his right flank to a primary challenge from Tea Partiers. (Democrats would most likely get an electoral boost, in both the primaries and the generals, from such cooperation on immigration.)

So some Republicans wanted to participate (props to ‘em), but needed to keep it secret for purely political reasons. Democrats also wanted to participate, but they were willing to sacrifice political advantage to do so — that was the only way they could do what they thought was a Good Thing, perhaps with some uncertain long-term political benefits, but because of the Republican-required secrecy, absolutely nothing short-term.

Meanwhile the rump of Republicans that retains any faint pretense of being “moderate” is fighting back against their (our) Tea-Party oppressors, hoping to regain some strength in general elections.

One more example of the asymmetry in political incentives: We all saw the political price Boehner paid for simply negotiating (again: necessarily semi-secretly) with Obama. I would venture to suggest that those negotiations didn’t cost Obama a single vote, or really any political capital – certainly nothing like what they cost Boehner.

So back to the question: would this dynamic have played out differently if Obama had played hardball instead of kissy-face? Two questions there:

1. Would we have gotten more progressive legislation over the last four years?

Almost certainly some. But given that Republicans have lots of power, especially veto power (far exceeding their popular support*), quite possibly not all that much.

2. Would we have achieved more or less of the political ascendancy that is now forcing Republicans to demonstrate some semblance of reasonableness?

With its emphasis on force, I have to admit that I’ve set that question up to half-answer itself. The only reason Republicans are cooperating is because politics and popular opinion are forcing them to. It’s not because they’ve seen some light, or because Obama was nice to them or caved in negotiations. To put it another way, general-election losses are forcing (allowing?) them to get sane(r) in the primaries, hence in the legislative chamber. Obama’s giveaways had nothing to do with it.

The other half comes down to this: if Obama had played tougher, would he and other Democrats have won bigger in November, putting even more pressure on Republicans to cooperate? I tend to think so, but it’s a counterfactual that I don’t think we can ever answer with even a little bit of confidence.

So the answer to this post’s question is, Maybe.

* That inordinate power is the result of three things:

1. House electoral advantage based on incumbency and state-level Republican gerrymandering over the last decade+. Democrats needed about 54% of the popular house vote to take a House majority in 2012.

2. Their willingness (incentives?) to use the filibuster unremittingly for effective veto power, with overwhelmingly more “cloture votes” than by any Senate minority in history.

3. The “Hastert Rule” that they all adhered to in the House, preventing any vote on a bill absent support from half the Republicans. (They finally broke with this rule on the fiscal cliff, and it looks like that break may continue.)

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.