By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
One of the lessons for U.S. politics of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that it points out the risks for the out-party of pure rejectionism; simply opposing whatever the party in power says and does.
Opposing the in-party is often a healthy instinct. Democratic governments benefit when the opposition promotes policy alternatives. And there’s scant electoral risk in disagreeing with many of even the most popular ideas a president proposes; few voters, especially swing voters, are so attentive to policy questions that they would otherwise vote for challengers except that those challengers disagreed with them on something. It usually works the other way around: People decide who they’ll vote for first, and then adopt policy positions to match their vote.
It’s also true that when the out-party supports a president’s policies, those positions will tend to become popular. And that might, at least on the margins, make the president more popular. In most cases, then, there’s something to be said for automatically coming out against anything the president says or does.
And yet …
Rejectionism isn’t likely to produce big electoral effects. Most voters simply vote with their party, after all. And the rest? Big-picture outcomes, such as economic slumps, unsuccessful foreign wars, major scandals and events like the covid-19 pandemic are more likely to matter at the ballot box than whether the president supports marginally more popular policies or not, or even whether those policies have passed into law. That also means that the out-party isn’t likely to get clobbered in the next election because it opposes the president’s policies.
Still, at the extremes it’s probably politically wise to stay away from really unpopular ideas. And since the president has the biggest megaphone, there’s always the chance that something like skepticism about measures to blunt Russian aggression will suddenly become extremely unpopular.
Then we get to the effects beyond elections, and this is where it really matters. One that’s more important than people might think is that politicians don’t like appearing foolish. Opposing everything President Joe Biden supported probably was a factor in pushing many Republicans to scorn Ukraine and praise Russia. Republicans who embraced those positions in the last year are now scurrying back to safer territory (with perhaps some exceptions).
Even if the party collectively might think that the best way to keep Biden’s approval ratings down is to insult everything he says and does, at some point many individual politicians really do find it untenable to oppose, for example, a president who is standing with Ukraine while it’s being invaded. And if some high-profile party actors start agreeing with much of what the president says (even while criticizing some details of what he’s doing), suddenly the ones afraid to be left out in the cold are the ones still employing the old talking points. Result: More scurrying.
Professional politicians are skilled at dumping old positions and adopting new ones when times change, but they really don’t like to have ugly clips played back to them on TV along with the questions about flip-flopping that journalists love to ask. Handled badly, this kind of thing can hurt a politician’s reputation, which isn’t likely to cost anyone a current office but could make it harder to move up nationally.
The other big reason for avoiding knee-jerk rejectionism is that it takes opposition politicians out of the policy loop. There’s a fine line here. Agree with everything the incumbent says and does, and the opposition might as well not show up. But automatic, mindless disagreement is empty. Especially in the U.S. system, with relatively weak parties and large numbers of veto and initiation points, it’s possible for out-party politicians to contribute to governing. And even if their ideas are defeated when their party is out of the White House and has no majorities in Congress, developing those ideas in opposition can mean adoption and implementation when elections go their way.
That’s the opportunity squandered by pure rejectionism. And just as politicians don’t like looking stupid in public, many of them — certainly not all, but quite a few — are interested in making public policy. Sometimes that’s because they see it as a key to other goals (such as raising campaign money, gaining national publicity or winning higher office). But sometimes it’s a major reason they got involved in politics in the first place. And all of that is good reason to reject rejectionism for the better choice of being the responsible opposition.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.