Managing bad political behavior in a cool, strategic manner

I want to use a tweet by Josh Marshall of TPM to make a broader point about strategic thinking in politics, the situation in the Republican House, and state of competition between Democrats and Republicans.

Here is Mashall’s tweet:

I don’t know what prompted this tweet.  I assume Marshall is criticizing media coverage of some aspect of the McCarthy fiasco.  I certainly do not want to defend conventional media coverage of Trump or the Republican party.  But from a strategic point of view, Democrats should try to make accurate predictions of how their Republican opponents will behave, and that means (mostly) assuming they are morally bad actors – that they are too concerned with re-election to challenge Trump, that they have no constructive policies they are working for and reject even the most essential welfare-state policies, that they are willing to leverage social divisions to advance their careers and their nihilistic policy agenda, etc. – and not falling into the trap of thinking that moral criticism will change their behavior.  Democrats need to view Republicans like the weather, or more accurately like a semi-rational and largely amoral opponent.  Democrats need to manage the consequences of bad Republican behavior in a cool, strategic way.

My point is not that newspaper stories should always take the point of view of democratic strategists and take the bad behavior of Republicans as a brute fact.  The media certainly should not blame Democrats for the intransigence and anti-democratic behavior of Republicans.  But taking a coolly strategic point of view is important, and it is important for Democratic leaders and activists and voters to learn to think this way.  At the end of the day, the party that comes out on top of the current competitive deadlock may well be the party that persuades its base voters and activists of the need to compromise on policy and to tone down rhetoric to appeal to cross-pressured voters. 

Doing this requires that Democrats – office holders, party officials, activists, voters – think strategically about politics, and that means not just engaging in moralistic criticism of Republicans.  Of course Republicans “deserve” moral condemnation, and it is important for Americans to understand this.  I suspect this is Marshall’s point.  But a moralistic approach to politics can alienate cross-pressured voters who feel criticized by Democrats.  (On this, point Hilary Clinton is repeating her “deplorables” error, this time by arguing that Trump supporters need to be “deprogrammed”.  Really?)  And sometimes the best way to get what you want is not to engage in rhetorical maximalism on policy or ideology.  Defunding the police is a bad idea, but arguing for defunding the police is politically crazy even if you think it’s a good idea.  Most Democrats understand this.

I believe the Democrats have an edge when it comes to persuading their officeholders, activists, and voters of the need to think strategically rather than moralistically.  The 2020 democratic primary electorate rallied around Biden. Pelosi protected her moderates.  By and large, the left wing of the Democratic caucus understands they are not a majority.  Perhaps at least a small part of this is due to the fact that the mainstream press wrote lots of often fatuous stories about the psychology of Republican voters.  I don’t watch Fox often, but I doubt Republicans are being invited to think about what matters to liberals and centrists.  Another factor, emphasized by Seth Masket, is that Trump won in 2016 after the plutocratic elites in the Republican party spent years telling Republican culture war voters that they needed to moderate – that is, to be strategic.  This “lesson” will have to be unlearned before Republican voters can be persuaded to think strategically about winning elections.

Finally, turning to the situation in the House, the prospects for a protracted stalemate seem high.  Scalise and Jordan will insist on keeping the motion to vacate rules in place to placate the Freedom Caucus.  Now a significant number of moderates are insisting on changing the rule (HT political wire) which would give the speaker some ability to move compromise legislation and prevent extremists in the Freedom Caucus from triggering a debt default or government shutdown or perpetrating some other kind of misguided mischief.

There is a certain logic to the intransigence of the Freedom Caucus:  even the craziest among them are worried about being primaried from the right.  Perhaps the moderate Republicans will try to come up with a bipartisan solution to the standoff.  But the fact that Republicans are in this situation to begin with shows how little ability they have to talk strategic sense to their base voters.  And at least to some extent, this may reflect the failure of right-wing media to match efforts (however imperfect) of the mainstream press to get Democrats at all levels to think about incentives.