Friday, October 18, 2013

Silent Dogs at the Shutdown

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
  --"Silver Blaze"

The late government shutdown  took a good whack at conventional wisdom in Washington. We've been hearing for some time that no matter how badly the Republican majority in the House behaves, nothing can be done about it. The Republicans, you see, have gerrymandered the congressional map so expertly that there is no chance they can be thrown out until after the next redistricting in 2020. Oops, maybe there is.

The conventional story never really hung together for me; I could never figure out how the arithmetic was supposed to work. When you gerrymander, you want to get as many seats as possible for a given number of voters on your side.  As Sam Wang explains it:

Gerrymandering is not hard. The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as “packing.” Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, “cracking” opposition groups into many districts.

That makes sense. It implies, though, that your side doesn't get safe seats--the other side does, while your side gets "close victories." There's a trade-off between maximizing the number of seats and maximizing the safety of each seat. As long as the are some moderate voters who might go either way, "close victories" are going to be nail-biters.

But are there any moderate voters left? Democrats need a swing of 18 seats to take control of the House. A quick check of the Cook Political Report (scroll down after you jump) reveals that 17 Republicans in the House were elected from districts that voted for Obama in 2012. Another dozen come from districts than went for Romney by two points or less. It doesn't take much of a shift away from Republicans to flip the House.

In the survey linked above, Public Policy Polling presumably was using this reasoning by polling in districts of the most vulnerable Republicans. They found that seventeen Republican representatives would lose to a "generic" (i.e., unnamed) Democrat, and another four trail the generic Democrat when voters are reminded that the representative voted for a government shutdown.

If you examine the PPP poll more closely, there are some odd things about it that might prevent one from putting a lot of faith in it. (For example, take a look at California 21, which according to Cook, Obama carried by 11 points.) But there's plenty of other evidence that things are not going well for Republicans. Both Gallup and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll show that approval of the Republican Party is at its lowest point since they began asking the question. Granted, it's still a long way to the midterm elections. but if I were a Republican in an Obama district, I'd definitely be pretty nervous.

What is strange about the whole shutdown crisis was the dog that didn't bark: "moderate" Republicans. We heard quite a bit from the press about the "suicide caucus" of 80 Republicans who pushed Speaker Boehner into the shutdown. Those people probably are electorally invulnerable; the shameless Randy Neugebauer, for example, comes from from a Texas district where Romney got 74 percent of the votes in 2014.

But what about the representatives from districts where Obama won or nearly won? Clearly a lot of them are in jeopardy from the Republican collapse in popularity. Why didn't they protest publicly? A few have, such as Peter King (district: 52% for Obama). But even King voted for the shutdown, and later refused to sign a discharge petition that would have permitted a new vote. Why? Why didn't the self-preservation caucus speak up? Why didn't they just say no?

All I can imagine is that even representatives in fairly liberal districts face a threat from the Tea Party in the Republican primary. That leaves a lot of Republicans in a pretty tough place (call it the Straits of Mitt), having to survive both a primary challenge from the right and a general-election challenge from the left.

Curiously, one of the few pundits to pick up on the key role of the "moderates" is Paul Krugman. He concludes, however, "The biggest problem we as a nation face right now is not the extremism of Republican radicals, which is a given, but the cowardice of Republican non-extremists..." That's like saying the biggest problem we as a nation face is that pigs lack wings. The problem is not that "moderates" lack fearlessness, which is normally lacking in politicians; it's that they are poised between two fears, of the primary and the general election.

One would think that their professional colleagues in the House would have some sympathy for their plight, perhaps even some understanding of what's necessary to hold on to a majority, but the rookies seem completely clueless.“It’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘Can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’” said [Kansas Republican Rep. Tim] Huelskamp.... “I would say the surrender caucus is the whiner caucus, and all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job.” Well, of course, the job's a lot easier when, like Huelskamp, you come from a district that voted for your Presidential candidate by 70%.

Finally, this episode, and the whole phenomenon of being "primaried," point once again to the need to get rid of the institution of party primaries. But that's a tale for another time.

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