Follow the Incentives

by Reihan Salam

Josh Barro argues that the reason congressional Republicans seem so hapless is that most of them are primarily interested in political self-preservation:

Republicans are eventually going to have to agree to a compromise deal that is acceptable to a broad swath of Democrats and that substantially raises taxes. Their base is going to hate that. But if they drag their feet and get smacked around enough on the way to the deal, they will be able to sell the idea that they had no choice but to cave.

It’s very similar to the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling increase, which Republicans for a time insisted would have to be linked to congressional passage of a balanced budget amendment.

A good fight — or at least the show of one — placates the conservative base and helps Republicans avoid primary challenges. It also makes the Republican Party look incompetent and reckless, damaging the national brand. Indeed, Republicans actually lost the popular vote for House seats in November, though they held on to a House majority due to a favorable electoral map.

The California Republican Party has shown over the past two decades that kicking and screaming and being unreasonable can help secure a cozy minority of legislative seats with a true-believing party base behind you. It’s a strategy that works. It’s just not a strategy that works for building electoral majorities. [Emphasis added]

The California GOP, which actually has fewer than one-third of the seats in the California State Assembly after the 2012 election, illustrates a number of other dangers. Back in July, we discussed how California’s Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that limited the ability of local governments to raise property taxes on incumbent homeowners, succeeded in large part because of a court case that essentially decoupled the quality of local schools from local property taxes. Rather than call for a restoration of local fiscal autonomy, conservatives in California wound up supporting further restrictions on local fiscal autonomy that have encouraged excessive centralization and overspending.

One of the reasons could be that while elected Republicans in California tend to represent middle-income inland constituencies where land values are relatively low, they tend to be financially backed by affluent Californians who reside in high-income coastal communities who are highly-sensitive to increases in local property taxes. This mismatch is replicated on a national scale, e.g., very few Republican base voters would be harmed by the elimination of the state and local tax deduction, which essentially subsidizes the residents of high-tax, high-cost jurisdictions, which in turn reduces the political pressure on elected officials in these jurisdictions to contain spending levels. Yet Republican donors disproportionately reside in these high-tax, high-cost jurisdictions, and so they have a strong interest in the preservation of the state and local tax deduction.

My view is that the best way out of this dilemma is to reform campaign finance regulation so as to strengthen political parties, as this would help overcome the instinct for self-preservation that leads legislators to pursue strategies that are rational for an individual but highly destructive for a political party. The barrier to such a reform, however, is that it would tend to threaten the interests of incumbent officeholders, as stronger parties would be in a much better position to back more formidable challengers.

California is an extreme case: Republicans now represent a small rump of constituencies that can even muster one-third of the vote to block various tax and spending measures. But those Republicans have very safe seats and they represent the ideological proclivities of their constituents quite well, and those constituents can rest in the knowledge that their representatives are conscientious objectors to the state’s leftward drift. The problem, however, is that there is a much larger constituency of voters who are disappointed with center-left governance and who might embrace a more “results-oriented” conservatism that emphasizes value for money, as Carl DeMaio has suggested:

Commit to making government work again: Californians like government, and voters want government to work again. Too often, Republicans have taken an “end it, don’t mend it” stance.

“New” Republicans can offer a vision of making government work that is still consistent with our principles. For example, let’s talk about how public-private partnerships can be used to provide better services, or how nonprofits can provide better after-school programs than government-managed programs.

Yet as long as California’s Republican legislators cater to the state’s conservative remnant and its shrinking donor base rather than this larger center-right-friendly constituency, they will keep losing. National Republicans risk going down the same road. 

I should stress that the goal shouldn’t be to please self-identified centrists. Rather, the goal is to build policies around the interests of middle-income voters across the country, not just those who currently reside in districts represented by Republicans. Jack Kemp is remembered not for bringing home the bacon to Buffalo, but rather for crafting policies designed to achieve economic uplift everywhere.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.