"When you step back for a second, what's weird is that we even see the Mississippi special election result as a surprise. The Republican party is tightly defined around George W. Bush. And his job approval has not consistently gotten out of the low thirties (deep crisis numbers) for almost two years. And amazingly, over that period, the congressional party has made little attempt to get out of under his mantle."
The fact that Congressional Republicans have been going along with Bush for so long, even after the 2006 elections, is pretty amazing. As Matt Yglesias notes:
"After the spanking the GOP took in the midterms, conventional wisdom held that congressional Republicans would tell Bush that either he was going to embrace Baker-Hamilton and moves toward winding-up the Iraq War, or else he was going to face mass defections. The shrill blogger set, reading recent history, accurately predicted that no such thing would happen and we were right."
Not on the war, not on S-CHIP, not on anything. It's pretty astonishing behavior for a group of people whose jobs depend on getting people to vote for them.
[UPDATE: throughout what follows, by 'Republicans' I mean Republicans in Congress', not rank and file GOP members. I should have been clearer about that. END UPDATE]
My best stab at understanding it is to go back to a classic post by Mark Schmitt, written three years ago: 'What The Republicans Could Learn From Hayek:
"A command-control system like the White House-led Republican congressional system can be absolutely formidable for a certain period of time. But when it breaks down, it breaks down completely. The collapse is sudden, and total. Signals get crossed, backs get stabbed, the suddenly leaderless pawns in the system start acting for themselves, with no system or structure to coordinate their individual impulses.
Is this happening? I don't know, but it's getting close. I thought I'd seen it before, but each time they've pulled it back together. This time, I think there's too much happening at once.
The irony of all this for conservatives is that if they actually read Hayek and got anything out of it other than "government sucks," they would know this. Hayek's libertarianism was very pragmatic. Centrally controlled systems are flawed above all because they have no mechanism to correct their own errors, unlike distributed, self-organized systems. The Democrats in the Clinton years always operated in chaos, no one followed the party line, and there was a cost to that, but in the chaos and improvisation they found ways to get out of the holes that they had dug for themselves. The Rove/DeLay/Frist system doesn't have any means for correcting its mistakes -- look at the blank, lost looks on the faces of Senators Lugar and Chafee yesterday when they just had no idea what to do with a nomination that had fallen apart and couldn't fulfill their promises.
The Republicans accomplished unimaginable feats through the centralization of power. Three tax cuts, a prescription drug plan that will make Americans hate government, an insane war. But if the goal was long-term power, it is a strategy they will come to regret, if not today, someday."
I think that the command-control system Schmitt describes did not really fall apart back in 2005. Bush's ability to just plain command Republicans to do things took a big hit: witness the failure of his Social Security 'reform'. But while Republicans did gain the capacity to just flatly refuse to do a few very unpopular things, they did not seem to gain any capacity to take action on their own. I suspect the reasons for this also reflect their command-control structure.
One of the many problems with command-control structures is that they have no room for individual initiative or independent thought. Decisions are taken at the top; subordinates have only to obey; any good ideas they might come up with on their own are disregarded, and any attempt they make to advance those ideas without the imprimatur of their leaders is punished. As a result, those people who don't go along are drummed out of the party, and the rest have no incentive to think for themselves, unless they happen to be in leadership positions.
Thus, one would expect that a party with that kind of structure would be a lot less adaptable and resilient than one that was more chaotic. It's human nature to stick with what has been a winning strategy past the point where it outlives its usefulness, but an organization that has removed all incentives for independent thought and action from most of its members is likely to stick with a failing strategy for a lot longer than most. For one thing, its members are not used to thinking for themselves; for another, it will, in all likelihood, have attracted people who are not interested in doing so, and purged itself of those who are.
Consider, in this light, this set of statements from Tom Cole, the head of the NRCC:
"At a tense closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference, Cole took full responsibility for the string of losses. But in a hastily arranged conference call with reporters, he dismissed any call for his resignation or a staff shakeup, which some Republicans have suggested may be necessary.
"You have to get beyond campaign tactics and take a long, hard look if there's something wrong with your product," he said. "It would be a great mistake to think that this could be fixed by tweaking a few things or a staff thing."
And Cole rejected the notion of a dramatic break with Bush.
"I don't see it particularly as an advantage to be in a debate with our president," he said. "It's not for me to second-guess the president of the United States.""
Cole is absolutely right to say that Republicans should be asking whether there's something "wrong with their product." (Of course, it's in his interest to say so: the alternative is to blame him.) But he then goes on to say that he doesn't think they should break with the President.
When you're as closely identified with the President as the Republicans in Congress are, when "we support the President" is basically the sum total of your message, how can you possibly "fix your product" if you're not willing even to consider breaking with him? (I suppose that in theory, Cole might mean that the Republicans should dramatically change their policies and persuade the President to go along with them, but in the actual world, our President just doesn't play that game.)
In short: Cole recognizes that something drastic might be called for, but he is unwilling even to consider any actual drastic thing.
Consider as well how intellectually impoverished conservatism has become over the last decade or so, at least as far as policy questions are concerned. A lot of the time, Congressional Republicans seem to have no principles at all. They are all for freedom, except when something or someone they don't like is involved (gays, people who someone in the Justice Department thinks might possibly be a terrorist, medical marijuana, Terri Schiavo.) They are all for fiscal discipline, except that military spending, cutting taxes, and spending in their own districts mysteriously don't count. Taxes should be simpler and flatter, except when businesses need arcane tax exemptions. And so on, and so forth.
Besides being out of the habit of thinking for themselves, then, Congressional Republicans have not actually followed conservative principles, or any others, for quite some time. Thus, there are calls for Republicans in Congress to return to their conservative principles.
However, I don't think this is going to work, since two things have happened during the last decade or so. First, Republicans' principles have atrophied by being used not as the basis for serious policy discussions, but for beating other people over the head. As far as I can tell, a lot of Republicans in Congress act as though just about any situation they encounter calls for one of three responses: starting a war, cutting regulation, and cutting taxes on the wealthy. (OK, there are a few other ideas: build a great big wall at the border, for instance. But these three seem to do most of the heavy lifting.) This is not what I'd call a flexible and nuanced ideological arsenal.
Moreover, each of these three responses has limits. There is a limit to the number of wars you can be engaged in at any given time. Presumably, no one thinks that we should pay no taxes at all; if not, then there must be some point at which cutting taxes is not the right thing to do. Likewise, very few people think we shouldn't have any regulations -- not even on food safety or nuclear power plant operators. Again, this means that there is some point beyond which most people would think that regulations should not be cut.
There are pretty good reasons to think that we have reached those limits*. Personally, I thought that one war was enough, but two has clearly overstretched our military, not to mention wrecking our foreign policy and running us into debt. And yet people are still blithely proposing invading Burma, airstrikes on Syria, war with Iran, as though our military was just sitting snugly in its barracks, twiddling its collective thumbs while waiting for something to do. Taxes are very low, the deficit is exploding, we have two wars to pay for, a growing mountain of unrepaired infrastructure and unmet obligations; and yet Republicans are still proposing tax cuts and excoriating anyone who disagrees. And after a series of scares involving tainted food and poisonous toys, a couple of airlines having to ground a lot of flights when it turned out that the FAA had been letting them get away with inadequate inspections, and then a financial crisis that looks for all the world like the result of inadequate regulation, Republicans are still acting as though our most pressing problem is the dead hand of government, crushing initiative wherever it falls.
Conservatives need to do something drastic to turn their fortunes around. I see no indication that they are so much as thinking of anything that might do the trick. I suspect that's because they can't, and that the reason they can't is, ironically enough, that they didn't read (or understand) their Hayek. It's always best to have a tightly controlled organizational structure when you trust your leadership and are thinking only of the short term. You can get things done more quickly, and there's none of that annoying consensus-building and compromise to worry about.
In the longer term, though, less controlled structures are generally better. They are more resilient and adaptable; they rely less on having one good leader and more on bench strength; by letting everyone weigh in, they give people a chance to affect policy, and thus an incentive to actually think about what they're doing.
Mark Schmitt said that when a command-control system breaks down, "it breaks down completely. The collapse is sudden, and total." I'm not sure about the sudden part: I think such a system can continue, like a chicken running around without its head, for a while. In fact, I think that that's what the Republican party has been doing for the last few years.
But I think he's absolutely right about the collapse being total. Command-control systems deprive themselves of everything they need to adapt to new situations. They also tend to drive out the people who would be best at making those adaptations.
For this reason, I think it will take a long time for Republicans to recover from the mess they are now in.
* Preemptive footnote: the point is not, obviously, that I think that regulations and taxes are good across the board. That would be insane. It's rather that I think that sometimes they are good and sometimes not. Political parties tend to simplify, and on these topics, the Republican Party has simplified more than most: the view of Republican politicians often seems to be that taxes should always be cut, and regulations should always be eliminated. A party with this kind of platform will, if it takes power, cut a lot of taxes and regulation. Eventually, if it doesn't change its platform, it will reach a point at which it has cut most of the regulations and taxes that should be cut, and that don't have powerful political interests behind them. (The opposite would, of course, be true of a party that tended always to support raising taxes and increasing regulation, and that was in power for a decent chunk of time: it would start with sensible regulations and taxes that were too low, and end up going too far if it didn't change its ways.)
When it reaches this point, it will either change its platform or its policies will look (and be) increasingly inappropriate to the problems we actually face. I think the Republicans went past this point some time ago.