When we last left the House Republicans, they were balking at bipartisan immigration reform while laboring to cut domestic spending to Neanderthal levels, not merely the Eisenhower-era levels of the sequester.
Now, Roll Call reports, the House GOP has ascended to an even loftier altitude of nuttiness—an insistence that any bill keeping the government open past September 30 include a provision to defund Obamacare, something that will cause the Senate to reject it and (failing that) Obama to veto it. This could, in turn, trigger a government shutdown, the blame for which would land squarely on the GOP. Even Republicans known for their uncompromising (some would say lunatic) brand of conservatism—like Senators Tom Coburn and Richard Burr—have pronounced this approach idiotic. (“The dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Burr called it.) And yet, according to Roll Call, House Speak John Boehner is seriously entertaining this stratagem, having recently received a letter from 60 House Republicans urging it on him.
All of which brings us back to a perennial question: What’s the deal with House Republicans? Despite every indication that they’ve simply lost their marbles, the question isn’t so easy to answer. In fact, I see three distinct possibilities: That they’re genuinely crazy; that they’re rational, but with perverse incentives; or that they’re just a little slow.
“Crazy” is pretty much self-explanatory. Whether they do what they do because they believe they’re the second coming of James Madison, or because space aliens told them to, is neither here nor there. “Rational,” by contrast, is a little more complicated. It means they’re acting in their self-interest; it just happens to be in their self-interest to appear crazy. For example, as multiple commentators have pointed out, many House Republicans represent ultra-conservative districts, in which the biggest threat to their survival is a Republican primary challenger, not a general-election opponent. Under these circumstances, it’s perfectly rational to come off as relentlessly conservative as possible.
Of course, even in that case, there’s probably a limit to how zealous you can be. It may be rational for individual Republicans to look crazy. But, at a certain point, the sum total of their craziness could force the House to do something truly disqualifying—like defaulting on the national debt and triggering a global financial crisis—which could, among other things, cost the GOP its majority. Still, as Jonathan Chait pointed out Tuesday, House Republicans have such built-in advantages when it comes to the electoral map and to midterm election-turnout, that the amount of craziness they can evince and still retain the House is incredibly high. In Chait’s view, then, the House is basically rational: GOP members can cater to the cranks who control their respective fates them without imperiling their overall majority.
But there’s another alternative worth considering: What if House members are trying to act in their self-interest; they’re just exceptionally bad at figuring out what that is? What if they’re, you know, kinda dumb? For example, if you’re a House Republican, presumably you have some policy preferences: You’d like to massively cut taxes for the wealthy, you’d like to slash spending for the poor, you’d like to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. In short, you’d like to enact the Ryan plan in its full, Randian glory. But, of course, there’s no way to do that as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House. And, unfortunately, as long as you’re committed to acting crazy—threatening needless government shutdowns; insisting that Obamacare is the greatest assault on freedom since the Nazi march across Europe; failing to fix massive electoral liabilities, like your perceived hostility to Latinos—you may preserve your House majority. But it’s going to be damn-near impossible for a Republican to win the presidency. (I elaborate more on these problems here and here.)
In fact, while it would be hard to imagine a level of craziness that could cause Republicans to lose the House in 2014, as Chait points out, it’s not so hard to imagine them losing the House in 2016 if they stay on their current trajectory for three more years. As I say, the electorate in a presidential election—with tens of millions more young and minority voters—is far more favorable to Democrats than the midterm electorate. Long story short: Right-wing House members may think they’ve got it all worked out—having identified the precise amount of craziness that maximizes their self-interest—but there’s a good chance their calculations are off. Perhaps disastrously so.
So which explanation is right? The answer is of more than academic interest. If House Republicans are bona fide clinical, there isn’t a whole lot Obama or anyone else can do to end our current legislative and political stalemate. If, on the other hand, they’re rational, there are ways that Obama can change their incentives—say, by inflicting more political pain than they’re willing to tolerate.
And what if they’re rational but none too bright? This one’s incredibly tricky. Dealing with such an opponent would require a delicate two-step from the president: First, educating House Republicans on what’s actually at stake amid all their posturing (a shot at the presidency in 2016, preserving their House majority that year, etc.) as opposed to what they perceive to be at stake (nothing more than their individual House seats). Only once that’s accomplished could he begin to treat them as rational and rough them up until they cooperate.
The problem for Obama or anyone else trying to get a handle on what’s driving the House GOP is that all three explanations can produce the same outcome in the short term. Crazy people would threaten a shutdown in order to win a debater’s point on Obamacare. So would rational people responding to goofy incentives. As would aspirationally rational people too dense to grasp the big picture.
Fortunately, we should have some clues before too long. After next year’s midterm elections, there will be little standing between the GOP and a 2016 beat-down if it sticks with its current meshugas. At that point, we can at least eliminate “rational” as an option and pick from “crazy” or “stupid.” How much simpler life will be!
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber