Voice

Chuck Hagel and The Credibility Fairy

Over at Slate, Anne Applebaum looks at the budget shutdown from the perspective of an overseas foreign correspondent and concludes, in so many words, that the state of American democracy is pretty f**ked up.  She closes with these two paragraphs: 

Plenty of people outside the U.S. understand how strange this debate has become. A couple of days ago, an Egyptian tweeted that it was “impressive how everyone in #US follows the law even in the face of extreme political vandalism by an irrational fringe. #Egypt.” His intention was ironic, but actually, he was right. In many parts of the world—in, say, Egypt—an “irrational fringe” group of politicians who tried to subvert the entire political system by overturning a law already confirmed by three branches of government would be called “insurgents” or “coup-plotters” and their behavior would lead to arrest, prison, or worse.

But because Americans, even irrational Americans, no longer use violence to achieve their goals, because this process is still just barely taking place within the outer boundaries of those institutions, and because the protagonists still observe the language if not always the spirit of the law, the result is peaceful. That is indeed impressive. But it is a narrow achievement. Americans are paying a high price for the events of this week, though they may not know it. The cost of shutting down the federal government for a few days or even a few weeks pales in comparison with the damage we are doing not only to the credibility of the United States abroad, but to the credibility of democracy itself. (emphasis added)

Well.... Applebaum is correct about the hit that democracy takes when gridlock like this happens, but I'd qualify her assessment in two ways.  First, it's the U.S. presidential system that takes the hit -- not democracy more generally.  As her colleague Matthew Yglesias explained in his eulogy for comparative politics scholar Juan Linz, presidential systems that allow divided government to persist can lead to this kind of persistent gridlock -- which, in many other countries, is followed by coups or revolutions. 

The second issue is whether America's foreign policy credibility is really affected by a government shutdown.  I think the answer here is "no."  The last time the United States went through this kind of sustained deadlock was the 1995/1996 government shutdowns.  As it turns out, this was right around the time that the United States also brokered the Dayton peace accords between the warring parties in Bosnia.  There is no evidence that the former affected the latter -- I don't think Slobodan Milosevic's spine was stiffened because Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton couldn't agree. 

I suspect that Applebaum might be conflating U.S. credibility with U.S. soft power.  It would be hard to argue that prominent evidence of governance dysfunction would tarnish the image of America abroad.  The effect of such a hit on U.S. soft power is literally incalculable -- I have no idea how to calculate it, and whether the effect is large or small (Pssst -- political economy thesis writers flailing for a thesis topic -- this is a very loud hint).

Still, Applebaum is a columnist -- not a policymaker.  With all the loose talk about "credibility" floating around the foreign policy community, I can see why she'd use that language a bit too loosely.  I mean, it's not like a foreign policy principal would be so careless

The U.S. government shutdown will undermine American credibility abroad and lead allies to question its commitment to treaty obligations, the U.S. defense chief warned on Tuesday as he prepared to put 400,000 civilian workers on unpaid leave....

The Pentagon chief said since arriving in Seoul on Sunday night, he had been questioned by South Korean officials about the threatened shutdown and why it seemed likely to take place.

"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?" Hagel told reporters.

"Here this great republic and democracy, the United States of America, shuts down its government," he added. "The Pentagon, even though we are (partly) exempted, the military has no budget. We are still living under this dark cloud of uncertainty not knowing what's going to happen.

"It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens. It's nonsensical ... It's completely irresponsible," Hagel said.

Son of a....

This is not the first time that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has.... let's say exaggerated the impact of a policy decision on U.S. credibility abroad in recent weeks. (To be fair, if we were talking about the debt ceiling, then I'd agree with Hagel.  But even a few weeks of government shutdown is unlikely to cause U.S. allies or adversaries to question U.S. resolve or commitments overseas.)  Indeed, the government shutdown is less linked to overall foreign policy than, say, Syria -- and even there, the scope of the credibility issue seems remarkably constrained

What is ironic is that there has been a news cycle in recent months that probably has eroded U.S. credibility abroad -- and yet, Hagel has studiously not talked about that blow to American credibility. 

So, to conclude:  while the U.S. government shutdown falls under the "not good" category, I doubt it's affected U.S. credibility abroad.  Indeed, the only actor whose credibility has been weakened by this episode has been... Chuck Hagel.  At this rate, he'd say that U.S. credibility was taking a hit if he tripped on the sidewalk in Seoul. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

American Politics 101, R.I.P.

The U.S. federal government continues to stay shut down, and analysts are beginning to realize that the current crisis will soon ensnare the debt-ceiling vote that must take place by Oct. 17. This is prompting a geyser of political analysis to explain why a legislature with a 10 percent approval rating has reached a position where the outcome is a gambit opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

As a political scientist, I'd humbly suggest that that standard Political Science 101 models are now pretty much bunk.

The bread and butter of American politics is pluralism. Members of Congress want to get elected and re-elected. The way they do that is by pleasing their constituents. Traditionally, the way they did that was by pursuing a mix of policies that pleased the kind of organized, concentrated interests that bothered to go and vote. These policies usually included a slice of pork-barrel politics designed to target groups with a material stake in their representatives, and some symbolic politics designed to target groups with an ideological stake in their representatives.

The funny thing is that this time around, the material interests on the GOP side appear to have zero influence over their party, as the Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb reports:

The decision to shut down the government because Democrats would not make major changes to President Obama’s health-care law underscored the fading influence of traditional business interests in the Republican Party — and the rising influence of more confrontational and conservative tea party groups that encouraged Republicans to embrace the shutdown strategy.

“While I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is in the best interest of the country, I also don’t think it is in the best interest of the country to shut the government down,” said Harold L. Jackson, executive chairman of Buffalo Supply, a Colorado medical equipment company.…

The experience of the Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, may best illustrate the new tensions between Republicans and the business community.

The chamber spent more than $60 million in 2010 and 2012, helping elect tea party Republicans and winning GOP control of the House.

But while there have been signs of fraying in the relationship for several years, the GOP’s willingness to defy its strongest business supporters became clearest Tuesday with the shutdown.

The Chamber had led more than a hundred business groups in urging Congress to keep the government open.

“With the U.S. economy continuing to underperform, the federal government needs to maintain its normal operations,” a Chamber-sponsored letter said Monday, hours before the shutdown. “It is not in the best interest of the employers, employees or the American people to risk a government shutdown that will be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”

A Chamber spokeswoman played down the differences between Republicans and the trade group, saying businesses don’t back candidates based on a single issue. But other conservative groups were happy to highlight the new wedge dividing the Chamber and the GOP.

So it would seem that groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have waning influence over GOP House members. In part, however, this also reflects the fact that those GOP House members have less that they can offer these interest groups. In an interview with Ezra Klein, National Review's outstanding congressional reporter Robert Costa explained a key dynamic within the House GOP caucus:

What we're seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power. It’s not so much about Boehner. It’s things like the end of earmarks. They move away from Tom DeLay and they think they're improving the House, but now they have nothing to offer their members. The outside groups don't always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members. And so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn't exist in a normal environment.

Mark Schmitt makes a similar point in the New Republic:

[T]he modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who BusinessWeek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.

What's remarkable is how quickly this transformation of the GOP has been. A decade ago, we were reading about ambitious initiatives like the "K Street Project," designed to ensure that powerful material interest groups strengthened ties with the Republican Party. Now it's the ideological interests that are ascendant -- and this poses enormous challenges to the American body politic.

The thing about standard interest-group politics is that bargains could be struck. Any member of Congress or interest group that didn't like the contours of a deal could be assuaged with a tax loophole here or a public works project there. Now, taken to its extreme, this leads to an incredibly corrupt system of government. At a low level, however, this kind of corruption is the grease that allows governments to do things like pass budgets and honor its debts.

Ideological interest groups are much harder to buy off, however. Their reason for existence is to push their ideas, and most of them will not accept half-measures. This leads to a situation where they benefit more from deadlock than from a bargain. Which is great for the Club for Growth … and lousy for the rest of the country.

The fact that this transformation of the GOP's internal organization took place in under a decade suggests that it could also reverse course just as quickly. That said, it's becoming harder and harder to talk about what's happening in Washington as "politics as usual." Because the dynamics of American politics now look very different than they did even a decade ago.

Am I missing anything?