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Keeping the Tea Party Happy

I think Kevin Drum (along with Austin Frakt) is right that John Boehner and the House Republicans are very obviously moving to the realm of pure symbolism with their ACA repeal vote scheduled right away.  Drum asks:

So he's scheduling a quick vote with no hearings and no CBO scoring just so he can say he's done it, after which he can move on to other business he actually cares about.
The only thing that puzzles me is why he's being so obvious about it. Is this a genuine signal to Obama that he's kinda sorta willing to work with him on future legislation? Is it a signal that Boehner is tired of the tea partiers already? Or what? It really does seem like he's giving tea partiers the back of his hand a little too obviously here.

I think it's an indication that Boehner believes that  the Tea Partiers are going to be a fairly easy bunch to manage.  Toss them some symbolic stuff, and then blame everything after that on Harry Reid and Barack Obama, and you've pretty much done what you need to do.  Is he right?  I'm not sure, but it's not a bad bet.  That's partially because Boehner knows going in that he doesn't have the votes (in the Senate and the White House, that is) to actually fulfill the Tea Party agenda.  If that ultimately is going to sink him--if activists won't, at the end of the day, accept a quarter of a loaf and cheer--then it doesn't really matter what Boehner does.  If, however, Tea Party concerns are really just symbolic anyway, then it makes sense to address them with symbolism.

There's probably a purist/pragmatist way to look at this.  Going back to the historic 111th and liberals, I think it's almost certainly true that there are quite a few purist liberal activists who would have been happier with the Democrats if Pelosi and Reid had brought a single-payer health care plan to the floor, and watched it be defeated, and that was the end of health care reform.  However, there were even more liberals and liberal-aligned groups who desperately wanted actual progress on the issue, and were much happier with a compromised plan that actually passed.  The original idea behind the purist/pragmatist split is that some people get involved in politics in order to win practical benefits, while others get involved in order to feel good about themselves, or save the world, or other such idealistic reasons.  The former should be interested in compromise; the latter has fewer incentives, so the thinking went, to do so (although in fact there are plenty of the latter group who, it turns out, can be quite willing to cut deals). 

Another perhaps less jargony way of looking at it is: what exactly do Tea Partiers want when they say they want to repeal ACA?  Are there specific benefits they would get, or specific costs they would avoid?  For the most part, I think the answer to that is no.  Either the goals are purely intangible—"freedom"—or they are fictional, such as destroying the mythical death panels or preventing non-existent fiscal damage.  Either way, and given that full repeal isn't plausible this year, it's hard to see how a compromise could satisfy those demands.  That makes a symbolic path pretty logical for Boehner and the House Republicans.

That doesn't mean they'll totally drop health care as the 112th Congress moves forward.  There are some tangible issues here (such as the complaint that enforcing tax law through the ACA will create overly burdensome paperwork for small businesses) that certainly can be solved, and for which symbolic action will not suffice.  

It's worth mentioning one other thing about this.  Voting to repeal ACA may or may not turn out to be unpopular by fall 2012, but either way Republicans are all in on this one, so it's not even remotely a tough vote.  On the other hand, voting for specific spending cuts will be a seriously tough vote, or more likely a series of tough votes--ones that the GOP conference in the House may want to duck, especially if the cuts are likely to die in the Senate. 

Can a series of symbolic triumphs provide cover for House Republicans if and when they let down their activists on spending and the deficit?  Hard to tell.  What probably matters is whether Republicans can get the partisan media to co-operate (by congratulating the House and blaming Reid and Obama), or if they will follow incentives to always differentiate to the right by attacking House RINOs.  For that, too, it makes sense to produce some quick symbolic victories, since tangible wins are going to be a lot harder to produce.