Civility to Republicans’ Advantage?

Now that Republicans have the House, wouldn't they be better off playing nice?

Mickey Kaus asks, “Are We Sure ‘Civility’ Will Help the Democrats?” While Democrats are leading the frenzy to tone down the rhetoric in the aftermath of the Tuscon shootings, hoping to both indirectly cast blame on and neuter Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Republicans, the actual effect might be to throw John Boehner into the proverbial briar patch.

There’s a reason, after all, why the White House has consistently attacked and therefore elevated relatively intemperate Republican figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—making them the public faces of the GOP. The reason is that wild Beckish rhetoric turns off independent and moderate voters. For the same reason, the White House has always seemed to kind of like having the Birthers around. They’re a great foil.

Why would Republican politicians ever fall into this “too hot” trap? Because hot rhetoric gins up their base. But now that they’ve won the House in an off year election, GOP pols don’t need to please the base so much. They need the middle. They need swing congressmen to vote for their bills and they need supportive poll numbers to encourage those congressmen to do so. If a “civility” crusade succeeds in getting the most volatile Republicans to cool it and stop irritating the center, it won’t be doing Obama’s work for him. It will be doing John Boehner’s work for him.

You could easily see a rhetorically modulated GOP achieving much more in the way of health care reform rollback, Social Security cuts, immigration enforcement, and educational choice than a GOP that insists Obama is a liar, a socialist, and unAmerican, that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, that illegal immigrants are mostly gang-bangers, etc. There’s a reason the slicker Tea Partiers (Ron Johnson, Rand Paul) won in 2010 while the jagged ones (Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell) lost. It’s not because Rand Paul is moderate in substance. It’s because he’s not a John Mica.

Mica infamously held up a “Don’t Feed the Alligators” sign during the welfare reform debate of 1994, almost singlehandedly giving away a winning issue for the Republicans.  And he’s been happily re-elected every year since.  He thus represents both sides of the coin.

My instinct on these things is towards civility, not because it’s a superior tactic but because it’s the right way to hold debates in a democratic society.  The idea isn’t supposed to be to hurl so many charges as to make it impossible for the opposition to make their best argument but rather to persuade others to your side.   And making outrageous charges routine lessens their sting when they’re actually warranted.

While the yelling about “death panels” and “socialism” likely helped drive down Obama’s poll numbers and contributed to the Republican wave last November, it also strengthened the Democrats’ hand in taking a go-it-alone approach.   Republicans could have secured a health care bill much more to their liking by getting on board earlier, because the president desperately wanted a bipartisan effort rather than something that would be called ObamaCare.   While the new Congress will be able to tinker at the margins, fixing the most egregious flaws, Republicans are pretty much stuck with this law now.

Further, as with the Clinton era welfare reform debate, I think the Republicans are on the winning side on many of the issues Kaus mentions.  But they’re losing moderate support with ugly rhetoric.    The immigration debate is perhaps the clearest case.  While we have some unique challenges because of our geography, it’s absolutely reasonable for a sovereign state to want to be able to control its borders and the flow of immigrants. But the heated rhetoric is turning off otherwise sympathetic Americans who don’t want to be associated with racist or anti-immigrant sentiment.

At the same time, however, the fact of the matter is that civility works against a minority party’s political interests.   Yes, they’ll get better bills passed by being honest players.  But the credit for them will go to the sitting president.   See the improbable resurrection of Bill Clinton between 1994 and 1996.  It was he, not Newt Gingrich, who got credit for “ending welfare as we know it.”  It was Democrats, not Republicans, who got credit for drastically cutting the budget and eliminating the deficit.

Mitch McConnell has crassly said that denying Obama a second term is his “single most important job.”  Like Harry Reid, I don’t think that’s actually McConnell’s top priority.  But it’s up there.  The bottom line is that, as important as Congress is, the White House has set the agenda for American politics since FDR took the helm in 1933.   McConnell doesn’t want to spend the next six years playing defense.

Beyond that, most of those upon whom people are calling to “be civil” aren’t actually in Congress at all.  It’s unclear to me how Sarah Palin or Tea Party leaders or Rush Limbaugh benefit from being conciliatory.   From picking their spots so as not to seem like insensitive jerks, sure.  But stoking up the energy and playing to the fears of likeminded partisans is how they got to where they are.   I can’t imagine what benefit they’d gain from changing now.

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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.


  1. legion says:

    “Civility” does not preclude calling people out when they blatantly, deliberately lie about things (Death Panels, etc.). Being polite is not the same as being squishy little bleeding-heart that doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Legion: Sure. I use “death panels” as an example of uncivility both working politically and working against the users’ agenda.

  3. mantis says:

    See the improbable resurrection of Bill Clinton between 1994 and 1996. It was he, not Newt Gingrich, who got credit for “ending welfare as we know it.” It was Democrats, not Republicans, who got credit for drastically cutting the budget and eliminating the deficit.

    That’s because the Republicans pulled gimmicky tricks like shutting down the government, behaving like little children, and Clinton and the Democrats were able to play the adults. Remember Gingrich whining that he shut down the government because he didn’t like his seat on Air Force One? What a child. Their 2008 vote against the Wall Street bailout because mean old Nancy Pelosi made a speech they didn’t like was equally childish. They haven’t changed a bit.

    It is possible to get credit for accomplishments as the minority party, while only ceding credit for compromising to the president and/or opposing party, but you have to be adults. Republicans are not.

  4. says:

    I would almost agree with your points except that essentially the republicans only plan for government is “maintain the status quo”.The fact that we are facing real problems that need actual solutions has not been addressed at all. By bringing civility back to the discourse, it becomes apparent that they really don’t have anything to add to the discourse and essentially have been running a bluff for the last two years about caring about anything except maintaining the existing wealth distribution..

    Healthcare is a prime example; what has been put in place is essentially a moderate plan using several conservative ideas that starts to address several serious concerns. How did the republicans react; by blatant lying and mischaracterization, opposing their own ideas and backing themselves into a corner where all they can do is call for total repeal, thereby going back to skyrocketing costs and large groups of uninsured people.

    This is true of any number of current issues – financial reform, food industry, immigration, global warming/energy independence, education, etc. The Republican party is happy with the status quo, regardless of issues that need to be urgently addressed and would ultimately help everyone.

    On a somewhat unrelated note (and as a long time lurker but seldom commentor, I realise it is hardly my place) – I’m entirely supportive of the author’s choice format of OTB nd enjoy it, it is interesting to have people discuss things they know about and/or are interested in. BUT I would request perhaps some expansion of the commenting topics – all the authors here seem to have gotten into something of a rut. A few topics get overposted, many other major news items never seem to make the cut. It would be nice to see this get back to more generalisation.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @c. red:

    I think that’s just a function of coming off a 3-day weekend and myself hardly posting at all whilst recovering from the flu. We’re posting less and just hitting the hot buttons at the moment. (Although there’s a lot going on in the “Quick Picks” section even now.)