Every party has talking points, and every party aims to gain power for itself. That’s called politics. But we’ve seen a couple moments this year when the Republican Party has been caught out not even pretending to negotiate in good faith with the Democratic majority.
Like today, when Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo revealed a leaked tape of Curt Levey, the director of the conservative Committee for Justice, advising Republican National Committee members on strategies to stymie the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
The problem? Levey’s call occurred on April 22, when no one knew whom the nominee would be, and definitely not whether she would be fit for confirmation. That didn’t stop Levey advising his Republican listeners “not to say that the confirmation of the nominee is inevitable, even if we think it is” — even if Obama nominated a candidate Republicans would not be opposed to, such as Minister for the Interior Ken Salazar. “He’s quite moderate as Democrats come,” Levey said of Salazar, though he clarified, “We’re not necessarily going to say that if he’s nominated.”
The aim, he explained, was to delay and obstruct the confirmation, forseeably until early August, with the “broader goal” of “just distracting Obama from other items on his agenda … The tougher the fight the less capital and time and resources and floor time in the Senate there is to spend on immigration and climate change, etc.” Don’t worry about the quality of the nominee, the Republicans’ strategists are telling them, just oppose her for our own advantage.
Sure enough, the Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma has already announced he will oppose the confirmation of Elena Kagan, though the Senate has not even begun its hearings.
This seems like the kind of inside-the-beltway chatter that simply will not make it to the ears of the wider American public, and it may well be. One of the advantages to the Republican policy of opposing as much of the Democratic agenda as possible is that if Congress can’t get anything done, the public tends to fault the institution itself, and by association, the party in control. The obstructionist minority responsible for the hold-up suffers the disgust directed at all incumbents, but because there are fewer of them, they cop less of the blame.
It doesn’t always work like that though. Last month during the Senate’s negotiations over reform of financial regulation, Republicans began accusing the bill’s provision to dismantle failing banks as a “permanent bailout,” even though it was nothing of the sort. Similar to Levey’s advice on Supreme Court confirmations, the line came from a Republican advisor putting together a defensive strategy before he’d even seen the plays the other side was running1. Strategist Frank Luntz distributed a memo back in January of this year advising Republicans to link whatever financial reform package Democrats came up with to the bank bailouts. Mitch McConnell and party stuck to the script, and, now Luntz is popping champagne bottles and toasting another victory. Right?
Well, no, not right. Democrats wouldn’t shut up about the Republicans’ cynical tactics, and even though Republicans denied being influenced by the Luntz memo, Americans weren’t convinced. The GOP backed down and began properly negotiating on financial reform. (And in an even happier twist, it turned out the two parties didn’t disagree on as much as they thought!)
In journalism, the magic rule of identifying a trend is to find three examples, so I’m not yet going to say that kneejerk Republican opposition has begun to fail as a strategy. But we’re beginning to get hints that the public is wising up to the fact that the G.O.P. isn’t very interested in constructively working to pass legislation. Democrats have been trying to brand Republicans as the Party of No for a while now; if Republicans continue to be sloppy with their playbook and allow their strategies to be leaked, the charge might just stick.
1 That’s a good thing to do in football but kind of against the point of politics.