The Big Myth of Rejectionism

Here’s how things are around here sometimes. I saw that Ezra Klein had written a post about “The Myth of the Presidential Mandate” late last week and open it in a tab. Didn’t read it right away: I figured immediately that it was going to be a smart piece and that I’d agree with it, and since I wasn’t really interested at that point in piling on about mandates, I’d put it aside for later. And when I did get to it last night, you know what? It was a smart piece, and I do agree with it.


Late in the piece, and separate from the mandate issue, Klein repeats what I think is one of the biggest myths out there: that rejectionism is the obvious strategy for the out-party because it works:

Minorities don’t become majorities by helping the other party govern successfully. When things go well, voters reward the party in charge. More often, minorities become majorities by grinding the gears of government to a halt, amping up partisanship and doing everything they can to make sure voters are disgusted with Washington.
That’s been accepted wisdom for at least Republicans ever since 1994, and for everyone else after the first two years of the Obama presidency. But I don’t think it’s true.

Yes, both the 1994 and 2010 election cycles were marked by GOP rejectionism — opposing every presidential initiative, regardless of what it was, as successfully as possible.

And yet: I don’t really think it’s fair to think of the 2006 Democratic landslide that way. Democrats certainly did oppose plenty of George W. Bush’s initiatives, sometimes successfully, but I’m not sure I recall anything that Democrats had previously supported which they switch on in order to sink the president. I wouldn’t characterize the 1980 or 1986 election cycles that way, either, even though they both produced flips in the Senate. The Democrats did quite well on the House side in 1982, despite certainly not practicing Gingrich-style rejectionism in 1981 and 1982.

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that out-parties should never oppose the majority. Of course not. But a full-on rejectionist strategy? At best, the effects are unproven.

I’d add two things to that. The first is about rejectionism working on a symbolic or messaging level. For that, one would think that choosing rejectionism over compromise on the most high visibility things is far more likely to have any effect at all on public opinion than is, say, blocking district or even circuit-level judicial nominees. Because, of course, the general public is not going to know about that. You have to go pretty far along a tenuous causal path to believe that the latter has any effect on voters at all (it would have to depend on the press processing the whole thing, and sending out a different signals based on those failures than it would have sent otherwise).

The second is that rejectionism that has real, voter-noticed effects is also going to be relatively rare, although presumably the economic crisis in 2009 was one of those times. Again, however, that speaks to the question of compromise or conflict mainly on the economy.

What that suggests to me is that all-out, across-the-board, rejectionism is probably electorally irrelevant. It may — may — make sense in electoral terms to oppose (regardless of policy preferences) an administration’s  most visible legislation, and especially in dicey economic times it make make electoral sense to oppose bills that would help the economy. But that’s about it; most of the rest of what Republicans have done over the last few years probably didn’t matter.

Rejectionism can contain risks, too. It can hurt the reputation of a party if elites believe that the party is not acting constructively; rejectionism also presumably entails asking Members to take some tough votes (that is, if rejectionism is a deliberate strategy and not just the residue of polarization). More to the point: if Members do have policy goals, rejectionism will likely be terrible strategy most of the time.

Again, I certainly expect the out-party to oppose much of what the president wants to do. The question, however, is whether they should, for electoral reasons, oppose everything — even when they can make policy gains by compromising. I’m not at all convinced that’s a smart strategy, and I don’t think that 1993 and 2010 proved that it is.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.