Normally, when a president does something voters approve of, out-party politicians either go along or just talk about something else. Indeed, sometimes out-party politicians will support the president during foreign policy crises even if it represents a policy failure by the administration; if US troops or other citizens are in danger or an unpopular nation is doing something ugly, politicians are usually wary of using rhetoric that sounds as if they are siding with an enemy.(1)
Supporting the president can hurt the out-party in the short term. “Rally around the flag” effects — in which the president’s approval ratings shoot up — happen when politicians from both parties support the president’s actions in a high-profile foreign affairs event. But the bounce generally doesn’t last long, so while it’s nice for a president to get a temporary lift, the out-party loses little from just waiting out the moment.
There are other reasons the party as a whole and individual politicians might not want to automatically criticize everything the president does. For one, the president has the biggest megaphone, so it’s hard to win the argument.(2)
For another, if out-party politicians care about their reputations with non-partisan experts (and by extension with swing voters), they may want to be selective in their opposition. It’s possible that attacks on, say, President Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis or President George W. Bush over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken more seriously because many of the critics had initially rallied to those presidents in the early days of those crises.
But traditional political incentives don’t carry a lot of weight with the Republican extremist faction in Congress, whose main goal is to differentiate themselves from mainstream conservatives. Under that formula, something a Democratic president does that is not only popular and successful but also generally aligns with Republican policy positions isn’t a challenge for these lawmakers — it’s an opportunity.
After all, if they take an extreme position on abortion or spending on domestic programs, there is a good chance that mainstream conservatives will follow along. But accuse Joe Biden of an impeachable offense for supporting Ukraine against Russia? Normal (very conservative!) Republicans aren’t going to go long with that, giving the extremists what they want.
For the Republican Party as a whole however, the extremists’ game is a disaster. A major group preferring disharmony to a united front makes election battles tougher and governing more difficult once in office. It produces ugly scenes for the party like those during the State of the Union speech, because acting out in public is one way to differentiate from the rest of the party when policy isn’t available. It makes it harder for the party to embrace popular policy options. And it generally makes the party dysfunctional, leading to the continuing Republican habit of nominating terrible candidates.
On Ukraine in particular, there is a potentially significant downside risk for Republicans. Usually, single issues just don’t matter much in elections. But usually, parties sufficiently tailor their positions to public opinion to avoid being way out of step.
Perhaps that’s where Republicans will wind up by November 2024. Or perhaps voters will ignore foreign policy. It’s hard to know. In the meantime, mainstream conservatives have to choose between allowing their extremist peers to stand as the party’s representatives on Ukraine, and taking them on and risking the possibility that conservative media will turn on them. At the very least, the radicals are turning Ukraine into a wedge issue for the party, while Democrats stand largely united.
It’s bad for the country as well. Robust political parties have the virtue in a democracy of gathering up disparate interests and forcing them to work together and compromise internally, so that they can try to win elections and impose their preferences on the rest of the nation. That promotes healthy democratic behavior; people with narrow interests must learn to work with others, cutting deals when necessary and accepting limits.
Parties facing elections also have a strong incentive to appeal to a broad swath of voters so that voters are happy and re-elect them, while parties out of office figure out why people are unhappy about and propose solutions. When party factions instead just pick fights, the benefits of democracy are lost.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
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• The Roots of Trump’s Anti-Washington Politics: Francis Wilkinson
• The UK’s Political Fever Dreams May Finally Be Over: Martin Ivens
(1) Criticizing foreign policy was never really taboo, despite the old cliche that “politics stops at the water’s edge” (the quote itself, from Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg while he was supporting Democratic President Harry Truman’s internationalist anti-Communism policies, was itself a form of political persuasion – although in that case, the argument was not along party lines). What may have been true was that politicians refrained from attacking the president when he was actually abroad, but even that was never followed at all times.
(2) To be clear: This applies to winning an argument about something initially popular and seemingly successful. Obviously when something goes clearly wrong, out-party politicians (and even those from the president’s party) will have stronger incentives for criticizing, and the president’s megaphone isn’t sufficient to win many of those arguments.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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