State of the Union January 2009

The Issues: Political Parties

In this online chat transcript, Ross Douthat and Matthew Yglesias consider where the two major political parties will be in 2012
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ROSS DOUTHAT: Okay. So we're here talking about the state of the two political parties, and I suppose we should start with the Republicans, because that part of the conversation won't take long.

MATT YGLESIAS: Fair enough—the RNC Chairman race hasn't really looked to me like the sign of a party that's about to embrace innovative, appeal-broadening ideas

ROSS DOUTHAT: but they all own guns, as I understand it, and really like Ronald Reagan!

MATT YGLESIAS: exactly, and some of them Twitter

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think it's telling that the DNC seems poised to pass from the hands of one successful governor—Howard Dean—into the hands of another—Tim Kaine—while the leading candidates for the RNC chairmanship include two guys—Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell—who LOST their last bid for statewide office.

MATT YGLESIAS: on the other hand, these party chair jobs are sort of sideshows; I think the more interesting thing is that I'm accustomed to seeing GOP unity on economic issues, but the right seems pretty divided on responding to the recession

ROSS DOUTHAT: You mean, between people willing to go along with some sort of spending plus tax cuts package—i.e. work with the Democrats—and people who want to fight till the last dog dies for capital-gains tax cuts and corporate tax cuts plus nothing?

MATT YGLESIAS: there's that and also divisions in congress over the TARP package, and even beyond congress you see substantial disagreement between conservative economists who are embracing the basic idea of stimulus (Greg Mankiw, Martin Feldstein) and those who disagree at Cato and so forth

ROSS DOUTHAT: Yeah—and I think that you'll see divides like this going forward, between people who want (whether for principled or for cynical reasons) to be part of what's going to be a Democrat-run game, and people—led by certain House Republicans—who think that a kind of purist oppositionalism, a Newt Gingrich redux, will bring the party back to power.
But if you aren't invested in intra-Republican struggles, I think what's really striking is how irrelevant the institutional GOP looks at the moment. You've written a lot about how the whole "search for new ideas" among Republicans matters less, in the long run, than whether Barack Obama governs effectively: If he does, the GOP will be shut out of power with or without new ideas; if he doesn't, then Republicans will come roaring back even if they haven't figured out anything new to say. And maybe that's true, but by the same token, it's perfectly possible for a party to lack the institutional capacity to take advantage of opportunities even when they present themselves. And that's how the Republican Party looks to me at the moment.

MATT YGLESIAS: I think that's possible, but I do think the future of both parties is largely in the hands of Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats in particular. If they succeed in bringing back prosperity, it's very hard to see what the GOP can do for itself in the short-run, and I think that's one of the causes of Republican lassitude
at the moment they sort of need to wait and see if an opportunity of some sort presents itself.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, true—and the good news is that precisely because the party's suddenly irrelevant, nobody outside the DC bubble cares about, say, how embarrassing the race for RNC chair has been. So the party can afford to flail around for a while and have people make asses of themselves, because things can't get all that much worse. (I hope!) And the very flailing may give some outside-DC figure who runs for President in 2012 or 2016—whether it's a Bobby Jindal or someone we haven't even thought of yet—precisely the opening he needs to put some distance between himself and the Bush-era party's brand.
Or at least that's the optimistic take. So ... on to the Democrats! Seems like there have been an awful lot of scandals already, huh? Obama's not even President yet—shouldn't power take a little longer to corrupt?

MATT YGLESIAS: you would think so!
though to be fair, Democrats have been in power in Illinois since 2002.
And I think if you look at the GOP record, 6 years seems to be about how long it takes for power to corrupt

ROSS DOUTHAT: true enough!
And obviously Bill Richardson and Charlie Rangel have been in government for a looong time.

MATT YGLESIAS: right—part of what you're seeing is that obviously as Democrats become more important, some people are getting enhanced scrutiny.
This does illustrate the Democrats' larger dilemma, though—namely that the same Bush-era screw-ups that put the Democrats in power have also made everyone pretty skeptical about the whole enterprise of politics and government.
So to succeed, I think the Obama administration is going to need to work very very very hard to make sure that they put forward some pretty squeaky-clean programs and individuals

ROSS DOUTHAT: True—although I also think that people overestimate the importance of scandals, so long as they don't touch the President directly. Basically, when things are already going badly for you, a series of scandals makes things worse—see the Republican Party circa 2006. But when things are going well overall, the public doesn't seem to care as much.

MATT YGLESIAS: right, but a new president has a limited window of opportunity to really drive things, and you don't want it soaked up with scandals. Which I think is why Richardson got dumped so rapidly

ROSS DOUTHAT: True, but don't you think Obama's window is wider than most?

MATT YGLESIAS: With first Penny Pritzger and then Richardson pulling out of consideration at Commerce, I'm wondering when people started thinking it was important to have a well-respected Secretary of Commerce.
Obama's window is wide in some ways, but narrow in others — in that he really does need to focus on some kind of "economy-saving bill" rather than a pet project

ROSS DOUTHAT: That's true. But don't you think the "economy-saving bill" will ultimately sail through?
This isn't going to be like Clinton in 1992, twisting arms for every single vote.
The atmosphere of crisis is too powerful.

MATT YGLESIAS: I think it'll be easy to pass something or other

ROSS DOUTHAT: And in a way, this helps Obama, because he gets to have an early victory on a front where the party is more or less united.

MATT YGLESIAS: but I think it'll be a struggle to get something technocratically sound through the congressional wringer

ROSS DOUTHAT: But that's always true! And if he started with, say, an energy/climate change package he'd be exposing large fault lines in his own party very early on ...

MATT YGLESIAS: But by the same token, precisely *because* there are fault lines on those issues it would be much easier to get something done early in an administration when his arm-twisting powers are at a maximum

ROSS DOUTHAT: Point taken. And he is going to be in a position where once the stimulus package passes, the economy will start to become his, rather than George Bush's.
At which point the success or failure of future legislation will depend upon the perceived health of the economy ... and what it says about the Obama Administration.

MATT YGLESIAS: right, it's a high-risk situation with potentially huge payoff if things go well and he winds up perceived as a Great Savior, but also a lot of downside.
To return to the beginning, I think this is why it's inherently difficult for Republicans to come up with a compelling approach at the moment. We need to see what happens

ROSS DOUTHAT: We do. And it's possible to imagine a scenario in which the very weakness of the GOP becomes a problem for Obama and the Democrats: If the Republicans don't look like a credible threat to retake Congress/the White House, the incentive for Democratic unity diminishes. But obviously that's a "problem" any party would love to have ...

MATT YGLESIAS: indeed
and with that I think we're past our time...

ROSS DOUTHAT: Indeed! It's been a pleasure, Matt, and I look forward to talking before many Obama State of the Unions (though hopefully not too many) to come

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic senior editor. He blogs at rossdouthat.theatlantic.com. Matthew Yglesias is a senior editor at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He blogs at yglesias.thinkprogress.org
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