Alex Massie

The Virtues of Cynicism and the Limits of Obstructionism

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Some readers, Andrew, Reihan and a couple of other bloggers all argue, to one degree or another, that this post is depressingly cynical* [typo fixed]. It wasn't meant to be! I wasn't meaning to endorse Republican obstructionism, rather I was trying to point out that, viewed from a GOP perspective, a policy of knee-jerk opposition to anything and eveything proposed by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress made or makes a certain amount of sense. That's all! I don't pretend that this is necessarily good for the country.

But in a two party system which also massively favours incumbents at elections time and in which a 53-47% victory is considered a mini-landslide, there's little incentive to try and improve bills proposed by the majority. If passing HCR improves the Democratic position - as some evidence suggests it might - then a guerilla campaign to derail that particular train makes sense. Again, one doesn't have to approve of this to recognise that fact.

I'd be quite happy if there weren't political parties at all or, if we must have them, that they were weaker than is currently the case. But we have 'em and the trend in American politics is towards greater, not weaker, party discipline. Again, if you can achieve that discipline in the minority then the system - and hence the incentives - favour taking an obstructionist apparoach.

At least in the short-term. The downside is that if this becomes the minority party's default position then you won't be able to do much even when you regain the initiative and the majority. A two party system, however, really is close to a zero sum game. Maybe that is a cynical way to look at matters, but in such a system what's the point of a party that has lots of great ideas - and even great people - if it doesn't also put itself in a position to win? That's why I say, viewed from the position of the party itself, it makes sense to put the party's interests before the immediate interests of the country. And of course many people might think there's no great difference between those interests anyway.

That is, Republican opposition to the Democratic health care plan doesn't seem markedly more nihilist than was Democratic opposition to President Bush's proposals for social security reform. Reihan's objections to HCR, for instance, seem admirably principled.

Ultimately, however, as I say, the "nihilist" position (if you must call it that) can only take you so far. It's fine for the first half of a presidential term but the closer the general election comes so voters are entitled to ask Well what would you guys do? and, more importantly, expect some answers.

The danger for the GOP is that when they do eventually win again they'll find that Democrats copy the GOP playbook and play a similarly stubborn, obstructive, defensive game.

In the end, it may well be that the problem is neitherĀ  obstructionism or even the system but one party rule. Democrats control the House, Senate and White House: they have the ball and are expected to do something with it. The GOP is playing defense, that's all. If voters really want an end to "partisanship" they should probably vote for divided government. That won't necessarily prodce good legislation but it would force the parties to work together...

*I am more cynical than Reihan, mind you.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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