Is there a puzzle?

Is there a puzzle?….Kevin raises some important issues in his last, agreeably skeptical post. And, ironically?given that he?s the political commentator and we?re the political scientists?he mounts a spirited and thoughtful defense of the traditional political science view: namely, that pushing politics and policy off center for any length of time inevitably creates gridlock and backlash, pulling politics, like a pendulum, back to the middle.

We were trained to be partial to this view, and we still find aspects of it appealing, even as we dispute its accuracy as an account of present politics. If nothing else, the ?center-always-rules? position is valuable because it identifies the crucial mechanisms that are supposed to ensure accountability?mechanisms that can be, and we think have been, thwarted. (Since there have been a lot of ?why don?t you discuss this?? comments, we should make clear that Off Center considers each of these mechanisms in depth. We analyze the constrained capacities of voters to enforce accountability, the?to date, limited?role of the media and opposition Democrats in keeping the ruling party looking over its shoulder, and the reasons why Republican moderates haven?t yet much pulled their party toward the center.)

Still, the conventional view can veer much too quickly from healthy skepticism into unhealthy complacency. It misses, as we argue in the book, (a) how far to the right of center Republicans have managed to remain over a fairly substantial length of time, (b) how effectively they?ve been able to insulate themselves from retaliation (mainly through what we call ?backlash insurance??a concept nicely described by Chris Hayes in his nice review of our book), and (c) how impressively they?ve been able to pursue some of their key goals, despite slim margins and public concern about what they?re doing.

So, in the spirit of healthy skepticism, let us take up the initial half of Kevin?s skeptical question: Have Republicans achieved all that much on domestic policy? Kevin ably runs down the legislative scorecard. But in doing so, he misses four crucial aspects of Republican achievements that simply aren?t well captured by such tallies:

  • First, how profound some of these achievements are (the tax cuts fall into this category, representing in their aggregate costs, more than twice the expense of permanently fixing Social Security);

  • Second, how much that?s truly unpopular and unsavory has been done under the cover of popular policy ?labels? (the Medicare prescription drug legislation, with its giveaways to big medical interests and its concessions to conservative animus toward Medicare, fits the bill perfectly);

  • Third, how much has been achieved through executive and regulatory measurs that receive almost no public attention and, perhaps more important, through the blocking of popular courses of government action that would help millions (can you say expanding health coverage and raising the minimum wage, or thinking seriously about addressing global warming?);

  • Fourth, how actively Republicans have focused on locking in their policy and political achievements against future public backlash?and, indeed, even against losing office.

There are two whole chapters on Republican policy successes in the book, but consider one very revealing example that?s underway right now, even as the GOP is supposedly on its last legs. Over the next few months we are going to see a big GOP assault on government programs, ostensibly to ?fund? the costs of Katrina. Some observers are likely to note, at least in passing, that the Republican budget this year will cut taxes on the wealthy by extending some ?sunsetting? provisions of earlier tax cuts that would otherwise be curtailed. And, in the ensuing deliberation, GOP ?moderates? may well succeed in somewhat limiting, although not fundamentally altering, a budget package that is wildly out of line with the priorities of middle-of-the-road opinion.

What’s unlikely to get much attention, however?even if Democrats scream about it?is that come January two big new tax cuts (estimated to cost $150 billion over ten years if extended) will automatically go into effect, because they were already passed in 2001. And, according to research by the tax team at Brookings and the Urban Institute, 97 percent of the benefits will go to those making $200,000 a year or more, and more than half will go to those making $1 million a year or more. Confidence in the moderating tendencies of our system seems out of place when such policies can go into effect at a moment like this.

Of course, there?s a second part to Kevin?s skepticism. He thinks the center may well reassert itself?presumably for a while, or it wouldn?t be too comforting?in the coming election. We?ve already offered much of our take on that subject. But we’ll say a bit more in our next post, and we’ll try to provide a wrap-up regarding some of the many other perceptive questions we?ve received.