In an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said some provocative things about the state of America's political system and how that affects our standing in the world. In particular:
If you look past the political dysfunction, the economy looks encouragingly resilient. We’ve got much more diversity of strengths, from energy to high tech to manufacturing than is true for any major economy, and people should find comfort and some optimism in that.
But the failures of the American political system are going to be very damaging over time unless they’re addressed. Although the world will give us some time to find a consensus around long-term fiscal reforms, they’re not going to give us forever. And you can’t count indefinitely on the worlds having more confidence in our political system than is justified. We have to earn that confidence. It’s going to have to produce better results from the legislative process.
So is he right?
My natural instinct is to be skeptical about claims like these. After all, the U.S. Constitution and America's great power status have co-existed pretty peacefully for the last 70 years. One could go further and argue that America's economic might has co-existed happily with the Constitution for the past century. Is it really the system that's at fault?
Perhaps a better way to frame Geithner's claim is to distinguish formal rules from informal norms. For example, the Senate filibuster has existed in its current form for quite some time, but there was a norm about not abusing this option that allowed necessary government operations to continue without significant impediments. Given rising levels of polarization, however, maybe these norms are breaking down?
I'm not sure that's it either, however. Even polarized party elites do share some common incentives not to completely destroy their reputations. If one looks at Barack Obama and John Boehner, for example, one finds two politicians with pretty different ideological starting points that are nevetheless willing to do some compromising.
No, based on what I've read over the past 24 hours, I'd wager that something else is happening. For lack of a better way of putting it, I think large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality.
Let me explain what I mean here. I'm not saying that the GOP is insane in its policy preferences. One can debate whether it's wise policy to oppose any form of gun regulation, seek massive reductions in government spending or pursue a single-minded, bellicose foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of those policies, the GOP has beeen pretty clear in expressing them. Message received.
Instrumental rationality is whether an actor pursues the optimal course of action to maximizse those preferences given structural constraints and the preferences of other key actors. And it's here where the GOP's behavior puzzles me a wee bit. Consider two examples from yesterday's news cycle.
First, Maggie Haberman reports that a new right-wing group has sprung up to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel...
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Again, I get the opposition to Hagel from some in the GOP. What I don't get is what anyone donating to these groups thinks they're going to accomplish. The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations. The most plausible story one could gin up is that by fighting the good fight now, a marker has been laid down for future nominations. Except that since the reputation for power is a form of power itself, the groups that fight this and lose won't seem terribly imposing for the next critical vote. If I was a wealthy GOP donor who cared a lot about foreign policy and national security issues, there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now.
The second data point comes from rumblings within the House GOP caucus that maybe they shouldn't risk hitting the debt ceiling. Hey, this sounds rational!! As more GOP elites and public opinion polls tell the Republicans that this is a dead-bang loser of an issue for them, it would make sense for Republicans to give Obama what he wants on the debt ceiling but fight him tooth and nail on the budget.
Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. "The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk," Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
This doesn't make any sense. If the full faith and credit of the nation shouldn't be a subject for debate, and if the GOP now realizes this is not a good arena for political combat, why kick this can down the road for less than three months? All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling. Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?
I'm not a Washington insider, but I've observed politics for a couple of decades now. Most of the time, even if I disagreed with the preferences of a politician, I understood what they were doing to try to attain those preferences. I honestly don't understand how many in the GOP are thinking about how they're gonna achieve their ends. It's like they've all flunked Backward Induction 101. Or watched this scene from Blazing Saddles once too often.
So I disagree wth Geithner. Sure, the American political system can be sclerotic. But what we're witnessing right now is something different. Like the revolutionaries in Stephen Walt's Revolution and War, the current crop of GOP elites seem to believe that loud, repeated affirmations of their preferences will simply and eventually steamroll Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the American people into acceptance of their policy platform. One would have thought that the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the 2012 election, the fiscal cliff negotiations, and the superstorm Sandy relief bill would have led to some learning. But it hasn't. And that's the scariest fact of all.
Developing.... in an utterly irrational way.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.