Understanding ‘suicidal’ political episodes

It wasn’t a great week for congressional Republicans, who ended up hurting themselves twice — they looked bad fighting to raise middle-class taxes, and then looked worse caving when the heat was on.

Jon Chait argued this week that GOP policymakers were so far around the bend, they looked politically “suicidal.”

The payroll tax debacle is now the third suicidal episode undertaken by the House Republicans since they took control of it at the beginning of the year. The first was when they voted almost unanimously for Paul Ryan’s budget, which was filled with grist for attack ads — huge cuts to Medicare, big tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulating Wall Street — despite it having no chance of passing this term.

The second was when they played chicken with the debt ceiling and turned a once-routine procedure into a white-knuckle game of chicken with the world economy.

And then this week, when they attempted to extract concessions in return for extending the payroll tax holiday, an anti-recessionary measure with strong support from economists, businesses, and voters. These are not just gestures. The right-wingers are really trying to off themselves.

I found all of this quite compelling, but it got me thinking about why Republicans, especially in the House, would be so cavalier about their own electoral futures. Usually, elected politicians want to win re-election, and take some steps while in office that voters will respect and appreciate. As part of the efforts that make it seem as if GOP officials “really trying to off themselves” politically, congressional Republicans appear to be making themselves less popular, almost on purpose.

Why on earth would they do this? I’ve been kicking around a few theories.

1. Republican lawmakers assume voters aren’t paying any attention. Politicians can get away with quite a bit if they think the public won’t know either way.

2. They assume Democrats, when faced with any pressure at all, will invariably surrender and give Republicans whatever they demand. That’s generally not a bad strategy, but it failed miserably in the fight over the payroll tax cut.

3. They assume the media will, under all possible circumstances, continue to tell the public “both sides” are always to blame for everything. This, too, is a pretty safe bet, but when even Republican media outlets turn against the GOP (take the Wall Street Journal editorial page, for example), this starts to fail.

4. They fear primary challengers. Under this model, Republicans know their extremism will offend the American mainstream, but if they’re defeated by even-more-conservative primary opponents, their careers are over anyway.

5. They figure major right-wing money — from the Koch Brothers, Crossroads GPS, assorted Super PACs, etc. — will come in before the election, destroy their Democratic challengers, and keep them in office no matter what they vote for.

6. They’re just nuts.

Why else would congressional Republicans take such breathtaking risks with their own electoral fortunes?

Update: Paul Krugman argues that I missed one: “reliable conservatives are assured of a safe landing even if they are defeated,” thanks to “wingnut welfare.” It’s a good point.