American Political Math

When Republicans controlled the presidency and had strong majorities in the House and Senate, I often read calls from bloggers on my side of the aisle for purging the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) from the ranks.  After all, the likes of Arlen Specter and  Lincoln Chaffee were a giant pain in the butt and always seemed to be in cohoots with the Democrats to craft a “compromise” bill that we weren’t going to like.   Why not get rid of these clowns and just work with the True Believers?

Well, by and by, it happened.  Most of the Republicans in the Northeast lost.  A couple of them became Democrats.

And now the Democrats control the presidency and have strong majorities in the House and Senate.  And, lo and behold, bloggers on their side of the aisle are saying the same thing.   Digby, responding to Charlie Cook’s claim that the Dems could lose 20 seats in the House in 2010, mostly among the so-called Blue Dogs:

I would love to hear anyone tell me why I shouldn’t be cheering for that outcome.

Cook said it would “reflect on” the president, but from my perspective it would reflect well on him. And if it happens because he rammed through meaningful health care reform instead of some watered down bucket of warm spit and the administration managed to get unemployment down, I think he will very likely have Morning in America in 2012.

To hell with Rahm and his appease the Blue Dogs at all costs strategy. What good is it if the president fails in 2012? If Cook is right and the Dems maintain their majority while losing a bunch of these reactionary wingnuts, I couldn’t be happier. And the Democrat should be happy too because it means they can pass successful legislation for a change.

Now, I encourage the Democrats to pursue this strategy.  I really do.  But instead of “winning by losing” they would simply be “losing by losing.”

Blue Dog Democrats are mostly Southern Democrats.  They’re moderate on the social issues and moderately hawkish on fiscal issues, making them liberals back home, conservatives in the Democratic Caucus, and “wingnuts” to the Netroots.  If they lose, they’ll be replaced by Southern Republicans who will naturally be to their right.

The Blue Dogs disagree with Obama on some issues but they wish him well and will vote with him when they can.  Almost all of them will campaign for him back home in places like North Carolina and Virginia and Florida, where he won narrowly last time even though Republicans have generally carried them.   Their replacements would disagree with Obama on more issues and hope he fails politically so that their party can take back the White House in 2012.

The only way that addition by subtraction works for a party is in the leadership.  A key committee chairman who opposes the party’s agenda can be more trouble than he’s worth.  For example, I opposed having Arlen Specter chair the judiciary committee, given how important the courts are to both party’s agenda.  (I would have given him a chairmanship of similar prestige where his views were more in line with the GOP’s mainstream.)  But taking away occasional supporters and replacing them with dedicated opponents is not a winning strategy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    But instead of “winning by losing” they would simply be “losing by losing.”

    Winning elections is always better than losing elections. If that weren’t true people wouldn’t try so hard to win. Those who think otherwise believe that it’s possible to strategize in politics which in turn assumes that nothing else is going on.

    In my view the greatest problem with such attempts to strategize is that they’ve demonstrably resulted in increasing geographic polarization of the elected officials in the two main political parties. The purging of moderates from the parties makes governance harder, not easier.

  2. just me says:

    I think the tendency is there, because when you have a majority, the moderates-or In Name Only’s-become more noticeable on the close/controversial issues-and it is frustrating, because from a party standpoint and policy standpoint you would think a majority would get anything and everything they wanted.

    On healthcare right now the real battle isn’t between the DNC and the GOP-if the Democrats were all in agreement, they could pass anything they wanted. The battle is between the blue dogs and the left wing of the party.

    I agree that seeking to purge RINO’s or DINO’s from the party is generally a losing strategy.

    I think one problem with congress is that too much deference is given to seniority-I don’t think it is good for congress or the taxpayer to have people in charge based simply on the fact that they managed to get reelected the longest. I liked the idea-which I think was and is scrapped of limited the amount of time a person could chair a committee (think it was a proposed house rule a while back).

  3. Derrick says:

    Winning elections is always better than losing elections. If that weren’t true people wouldn’t try so hard to win. Those who think otherwise believe that it’s possible to strategize in politics which in turn assumes that nothing else is going on.

    This type of thinking ignores one simple fact, people aren’t always rational. I’m not saying for instance that just losing elections is a viable on-going strategy in the Democratic process, but if its part of a calculated expectation it can often be a very sound strategy. If health care is the Democrats #1 priority, and they believe that it will be a long-term success, why wouldn’t it make sense to sacrifice some seats in a mid-term election to reap the rewards of a potential long term electoral windfall. I’m not saying that anyone can properly predict that such a windfall will happen, but if the expected outcome outweighs the short term losses, that’s a sound strategy.

    As an example, Republicans embraced a “Southern Strategy” which cost them in the short term with Goldwater and Nixon’s first run, but proved to be a long term successful strategy by consolidating votes in the South. Now whether “Southern Strategy” or health care is in the best interests of the country is another question. But whether one can win by losing a little has been proven as effective when someone can handle the short term loss and has a good read on the overall expected outcome.

  4. kth says:

    I go to Digby’s blog, much like Glenn Greenwald’s, for the moral depth and the historical perspective. For political strategy and tactics, not so much.

    Part of the natural yin and yang of politics is that, while your side is out of power, you get more and more pissed off. But when you are in power, the inevitable disappointments and compromises sap your energy. This is partly why, since 1952, the presidency has changed parties every 8 years like clockwork (the sole exception being the 1st term of the Reagan administration).

    If one party were able to cement a base of support that didn’t live or die by the bi-polar energies of activism, they would break the 8-year cycle; or more precisely, move the medium-term deep structure, on the surface of which that 8-year tide ebbs and flows, in their direction.

  5. Furhead says:

    This is partly why, since 1952, the presidency has changed parties every 8 years like clockwork (the sole exception being the 1st term of the Reagan administration).

    There’s at least one other exception to that rule.

  6. Furhead says:

    Oh, but maybe you are saying if you switched that one administration, the pattern would be perfect. Sorry if I misunderstood.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    The counter point however is that the GOP is *still* trying to purge the moderates even though they are in a very weakened position. You have people like Specter and Crist that could have won re-election pretty easily with the backing of the GOP base and instead one has fled the party and the other is likely to lose the primary.

    I agree that Dems shouldn’t conduct purges (no matter how tempting the blue dogs idiocy makes it). Right now with the demographic advantages all on their side the dems should slowly consolidate control of all the previously competitive key states and try to make inroads into traditional red areas. Replacing the blue dogs with progressives can wait.

  8. Wayne says:

    “If they lose, they’ll be replaced by Southern Republicans who will naturally be to their right.”

    Not necessarily true. Many of the pickup by Democrats in the last election ran as more conservative than the Republicans who were running to the left in hope of picking off more moderates.

    Yes I understand that differences in different part of the Country and wouldn’t expect and actually wouldn’t want everyone in either party to agree or toe the party line all the time which is what most do now days. However like Specter\Snow there is a point where they go too far and do you more harm than good. In Specter case if the GOP didn’t waste resources on him we may actually have a Conservative in his seat.

    Also when you are more concern about winning elections than getting the right person in office then you get many of the sleazy politicians that we have in office now. IMO the problem with the GOP and is in a good part why they lost is they sold their sole in order to try to win election.

  9. sam says:

    IMO the problem with the GOP and is in a good part why they lost is they sold their sole in order to try to win election.

    Probably why they weren’t a shoe-in in the last election.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t know; sounds fish-y to me, Sam.

  11. Brett says:

    Well, what’s left after we lose them?

    To be slightly on the cold-blooded side (speaking as a liberal Democrat), if we get the needed reforms passed, then all that matters is that we have a majority after the 2010 elections, so we can block any efforts to kill the reforms.