When You're Way Out of the Money, You Don't Worry About Downside

I’m kind of bored by politics these days, but I’ll jump in briefly to say that Matt Yglesias knows better than this post would suggest about the relative risks to the two parties with respect to health insurance reform. The GOP really has no incentive to cooperate on this, which is why they are being so obstructionist.

If they cooperate, they will not share in the credit for success. I don’t think anyone really disputes this. This is a Democratic piece of legislation championed by a Democratic Administration that campaigned on the issue. On the other hand, they’d face real morale problems from a “base” that is motivated by all-out war. So cooperation has no real upside and real downside.

If they obstruct, then there are two possibilities: something passes, or it doesn’t.

If something passes over their obstruction, and it’s popular, the Democrats benefit. But it’s not obvious that they benefit substantially more than they would if they passed the legislation with GOP help. And voters have notoriously short memories and have not been conspicuous for their long-term gratitude towards either political party. So not much downside to obstruction here.

If legislation fails, the popularity of the legislation becomes irrelevant; what matters is whether failure is popular or unpopular, and who gets blamed for failure. If failure is popular, the GOP benefits enormously. If failure is unpopular, the GOP also benefits, because Democrats – with a big majority – will logically and correctly be blamed for failure.

Matt knows all of his. Ultimately, the argument he needs to make isn’t that the GOP could face downside from obstruction. It’s that moderate Democrats face real risk if no bill passes. Which, as it happens, is almost certainly true: failure would strengthen the GOP across the board, but that’s not going to cost Democrats in safe seats. Rather, it’s going to cost Democrats in marginal seats and, at the extreme, risks the loss of the majority, which hurts all Democratic legislators.

(As an aside: the above analysis is purely tactical. Across-the-board obstruction strikes me as a reasonable tactical approach given the GOP’s actual condition. But whether it’s a smart strategic approach is another story. I don’t think it is – but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about a smart strategic approach in any event when you have a party without leadership and without a willingness to thrash out real differences in public the way, say, the Democrats did in the 1980s.)