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Thursday, December 22, 2011  

Whither Republican Unity?

Today John Boehner decided to follow Mitch McConnell's lead and accept a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday. This was a very strange political debate in that everyone (or almost everyone) claimed to be in favor of the move, but yet it stalled over unrelated policy issues. That's how our institutional design works these days, I guess.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what the impact of this development is on the policy issues next year. One of the more striking, and under-discussed, features of American politics since January, 2009 has been the high degree of Republican unity. With very few exceptions, the President has had to move his agenda items with only Democratic support. This was true, interestingly enough, even on issues over which there was broad bipartisan agreement literally months earlier (Mitt Romney's health care policy, or John McCain's climate policy to name only two).

The simplest explanation for this unusual degree of Republican solidarity is that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell both saw thwarting the president on every issue as broadly beneficial to them both in electoral terms (and thus beneficial to the country as a whole in the medium-to-long run). And this was true, and probably remains true. But while Republican members have less diversity of ideology and individual interests than their Democratic counterparts, they don't have entirely identical interests. And for once this diversity of views and interests turned into a public rift between the House and Senate caucuses. A strategy of total obstruction has benefited both caucuses, but only because both caucuses have denied the president the "bipartisan" label on any of his measures. Once that cooperation fractures, it seems like it should be pretty hard to repair. I don't know who has the more right to feel double-crossed right now, Boehner or McConnell, which perhaps means that they both feel abused by the other, and it will be much easier for the president to play them against each other than it was only days ago. It would not surprise me if the next payroll tax holiday extension debate plays out rather differently than this one.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:42 PM
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