Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The "Republican Party" Doesn't Make Strategic Decisions—Individual Republicans Do

The 2016 election is still two weeks away, and yet the likely outcome is sufficiently apparent that news media post-mortems are already beginning to appear. Though the Democratic Party is poised to win the presidency for the third consecutive election, elevating the first woman in history to the office in the process, it is the Republican opposition that is gaining most of the attention these days—and will surely continue to do so once the votes have all been counted. Fascination with what appears to be the picturesque final days of the Donald Trump campaign has expanded to the question of what effect Trump's candidacy will have on his party, both in the short and long term, and what steps Republicans will take to address the internal problems of which Trump is arguably more a symptom than a cause.

It's easy to discuss what "the Republican Party" will, or should, do. But no single authority atop the GOP holds the power to make and enforce strategic decisions on its behalf. There are only an array of individual Republicans, from congressional officers and national committeemembers to interest group leaders and media personalities, who may have plenty of good ideas about the proper direction for the party as a whole but who also have their own constituencies to satisfy and their own careers to advance.

Social scientists use the term "collective action problem" to refer to a situation in which a contradiction exists between the aggregate interests of a group of actors and the personal interest of each individual actor. Just as the mice are collectively safer if they can hear the house cat coming but no single mouse is willing to take the risk necessary to bell it, the current Republican Party is awash in tensions between individual and collective political incentives. Here are three recommendations or predictions that media commentators have frequently advanced for the post-election GOP, which are all probably smart in a general strategic sense but don't always recognize the contradictory interests of key individual actors within the party:

1. The Republican Party should "modernize" in order to expand its electoral appeal. If Hillary Clinton defeats Trump in November, giving the Democratic Party its fifth victory in the past seven presidential elections, many Republican political consultants and outside observers will argue that the GOP will need to take visible steps to increase its popular appeal among key demographic subgroups such as racial minorities, single women, and millennial-generation voters. Because the term "moderate" is often anathema to a party that views itself as the vehicle of conservative ideology, these calls for reform are usually promoted as "modernization" or "reinvention" initiatives.

But individual Republican politicians must still worry about winning primary elections dominated by current, not hypothetical, party supporters, while congressional leaders must similarly satisfy their own rank and file before they consider expanding the party's reach to new constituencies. The post-2012 "autopsy report" commissioned by the Republican National Committee was largely ignored by Republican elected officials in part because its recommendations departed sharply from their own individual political incentives—and this divide has only widened further in the ensuing four years. If Republican members of Congress were already reluctant to support comprehensive immigration reform legislation—one frequently-prescribed remedy for the GOP's dire current standing among Latinos—how many will be more enthusiastic to do so after Donald Trump rode deep anti-immigration sentiment to an upset victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries?

2. The Republican Party should push back against the conservative media. Trump's nomination represents undeniable evidence of the significant power of conservative media outlets within the party, from Fox News and talk radio to websites like Breitbart (which supplied Trump's current campaign chairman). Critics both within and outside the GOP charge the right-wing media universe with misinforming Republican voters and sowing popular anger against the party's traditional leadership, leaving the party uniquely vulnerable to a Trump takeover and its associated problems. "Want to Save the Republican Party?" asks one recent headline in the Washington Post. "Drain the Right-Wing Media Swamp."

Once again, this is easier said than done. Trump's nomination is not the first piece of evidence suggesting that the increasing influence of the conservative media universe is not always a positive good for the governing health of the Republican Party. But which individual Republican officials are willing to lead the charge against some of their own supporters' most trusted sources of information? Today, whenever a Republican member of Congress criticizes a major conservative media figure, it only takes a day or two before the member of Congress has apologized and pledged eternal devotion to the media personality's wisdom and moral leadership. It's hard to envision many Republican politicians sacrificing their own careers for the cause of putting Sean Hannity in his place.

3. The Republican Party should confirm Merrick Garland in the lame-duck session of Congress. If Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats gain control of the Senate, she will be in a position to fill the Supreme Court seat formerly held by the late Antonin Scalia—assuming that Senate Democrats would respond to any Republican filibuster by invoking the "nuclear option" to disallow filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. For this reason, some commentators have suggested—and even predicted—that the current Republican-controlled Senate should or would confirm Barack Obama's choice, Merrick Garland, rather than risk a less palatable nominee replacing Scalia once Clinton takes office.

It's easy to see the logic for this maneuver from the perspective of the Court's composition. Garland has a fairly moderate reputation as a jurist; he is also about to turn 64. If the Senate continues its blockade of Garland's nomination, a future President Clinton could withdraw it in favor of a younger and more left-wing justice, making Stephen Breyer rather than Garland the swing vote on the Court and increasing the probability of a long-term liberal majority.

But Republican senators are not worried about the Court as much as they are about themselves. Confirming Garland after the election would require majority leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley to schedule hearings and a vote on Garland. At least 14 Republican senators would need to vote for cloture (in order to defeat a certain filibuster that would likely represent the first phase of the 2020 Ted Cruz for President campaign) and at least 4 would need to vote in favor of Garland on the floor (or at least abstain from voting). And all of this behavior would be in service of elevating a left-of-center justice to the Court who was nominated by Obama, ending four decades of conservative judicial ascendancy.

Sophisticated conservative intellectuals might understand that such a move was motivated by the goal of avoiding the chance of an even less acceptable hypothetical outcome, but Republican senators would probably be much less confident that their party's primary voters would grasp the strategic calculation at work. For them, the easy choice is to keep Garland bottled up until January and let the Democrats do what they will in the new session of Congress, even if this inaction results in a more liberal Court. And this logic applies more broadly to nearly all of the considerations that arise when discussing the issue of "where the Republican Party goes from here." The Republican Party will collectively go wherever individual Republicans go—which is likely to be, for better or worse, wherever their own personal interests take them.