A Stimulating Question: Why Did Republicans Flip-Flop on Juicing the Economy?

By Chris Mooney | September 7, 2011 7:55 am

Ezra Klein has a cool piece, citing some psychology research to explain why the GOP was for economic stimulus under George W. Bush, but is now against it (when it is needed even more). As Klein writes:

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama….

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along….

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

The study in question is of the influence of group affiliation on one’s policy preferences. And it clearly shows that both liberal and conservative partisans were biased (in the first study reported in the paper) to favor a policy their party supported, regardless of its content.

More specifically, dress up a relatively stringent welfare policy inside a packaging that suggests that 95 percent of Democrats support it and say it would help the poor, and liberal/Democrat partisans support it. Similarly, dress up a relatively generous welfare policy inside a packaging suggesting that 95 percent of Republicans support it and say it would do enough for the poor without undermining their work ethic, and conservative/Republican partisans support it.

That’s not at all surprising, given not only the strong partisan cues on offer, but also the fact that the policies were framed as being the epitome of liberal or conservative moral values (caring for the poor/ensuring personal responsibility for one’s actions), which are also very strong determinants of beliefs.

But there seems to me to be something missing in applying this analysis to a matter like the stimulus flip-flop.

First, is there a major recent case of Democrats flip flopping so hard, and so fast, on some major policy matter–facing two recession threats in under a five year span? (Bush signed a stimulus bill with Republican support in 2008.)

Second, in terms of group solidarity, are Democrats as supportive of President Obama as Republicans always were of President Bush? Does anyone get the sense right now that, as Obama flails and fails, his allies are sticking up for him and making sure they have his back?

The point is, I’m not at all sure that the two groups react the same way when it comes to party loyalty, or to resisting whatever the other party says.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning

Comments (9)

  1. Kevin

    Man, you really had me believing you could write a insightful post without picking on the republican party specifically, right up until you made your two “points”. A point is made not by asking a question that you have no evidence for, but by doing research and providing facts. You just need to get out with it and say “The point is, despite what the study shows, I still think democrats are better people than republicans”.

  2. TA

    I think it’s simply that progressives (or Democrats) are more apt to make deals. They would rather make SOME change then none at all.

    They believe that government can actually exact positive change and will vote for something they find partially distasteful. Figuring they can always go back and change it legislatively down the road.

    I don’t think conservatives are the same way. They will vote against legislation sometimes just because of one aspect they dislike.

    – // –

    Also, in our two-party system, you can logically make the case that you should never support another party’s idea or bill. If it is a success, you will get none of the credit .. if it is a failure, you will be attacked by candidates in your own party as being soft or not a ‘true’ party member. With primary elections having such a small amount of voters participating, it’s quite easy to make those charges stick. Which is why the Tea Party has been so successful.

  3. TerryEmberson

    As to the second, I would say that not many people were very supportive of Bush by 2006-2007, even in his party. This, however, is a subjective analysis. It would be difficult to objectively quantify that for a number of reasons, including the fact that the issues Bush and Obama are facing can not be normalized to each other.

    For the first, I think that the withdrawal dates for Iraq, the closing down of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the elimination of the No Child Left Behind (No Child Gets Ahead) provisions are all significant platform reversals for the Democratic party, however each has individual reasons for the reversal, just as the Republican reversal on stimulus has much to do with learning from mistakes as well as seeing key individuals replaced.

    What it really comes down to is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats really actually have ideals or morals anymore. They are more like parliamentary coalitions than parties, horsetrading for gains in votes until they hold positions that are mutually exclusive of each other (We support free trade, but get rid of those damn migrant workers!) (We support welfare to help the poor, but need to slow the economy so we don’t damage the environment!). For that reason, and because the vast majority of voters don’t really care what they are voting for, we get the policy flip flops above.

    Remember, both the Democrats and Republicans support almost all of the same policies, they just disagree on the details. No republican candidate legitimately wants to eliminate welfare (except Ron Paul). No democratic candidate legitimately wants to take away private property. Afterall, “we’re all Keynesians now” was said by a Republican president, who just happened to be wrong and one of the worst presidents of the last century. The parties are arguing in the margins, which generally makes for much more heated and visceral arguments.

    We are essentially a single party system (the Big Government party) with two flavors.

  4. I’ll probably have to blog about this, but why should we take the GOP claims from the Bush era seriously? Taking the Bush era claim seriously is like taking a creationist’s claim that he just wants ‘to teach the controversy’ seriously. They wanted to cut taxes on the wealthy, so they came up with this claim. Had the economy been doing well, they would had argued that we don’t need the taxes, and therefore, the wealthy should pay less.

    Since the Gingrich era, the GOP’s modus operandi has been to use words as weapons–they just don’t believe they have meaning (and, as you yourself have documented, often twist those meanings).

    Klein is naively overthinking the problem.

  5. That’s an easy one to answer: because they’re out of power now. It’s the same reason that the Democrats are suddenly for it, and why Cindy Sheehan’s media mana dried up the instant Obama was elected.

    Party political thinking has to be one of the lowest kinds there is.

  6. Baramos

    That’s one advantage Bush that Obama doesn’t have now: the GOP always supported Bush, even when he was hilariously wrong even by their own standards regarding conservative economics. With Obama, he is consistently brickwalled by the Republicans while his Democrat “allies” harass him for not “introducing visionary, bold legislation” that they themselves should be writing. If he were to introduce Dead-on-Arrival legislation, they will then harass him when Republicans fail to vote for it. He is in a no win situation.

  7. plutosdad

    Which republicans are being talked about? Politicians or people?
    I and most others I know were against TARP as well as the stimulus, and the Porkbusters site was popular enough and caused enough problems for Congress that it was even ranted against by Trent Lott on his way out.

    I had plenty of discussions before TARP complaining that spending didn’t work for Hoover or for FDR or for the Japanese, yet we are trying it again. Now you can argue I am wrong, but you can’t claim that I and all the other conservatives out there who were concerned with spending simply didn’t exist. Then with the Stimulus we doubled down. This was all in addition to the huge amount of spending that went on for all 8 years on wars and everything else.

    I know my anecdotes are not data, but I am tired of hearing that no one cared about spending under Bush, while many of us certainly did. Of course both parties ignored us and continue to. I doubt I am part of some bizarre small minority, but who knows maybe I am.

  8. JMW

    I gotta agree with plutosdad on this. To me, this study shows how the rank-and-file of party members behave. As I wrote in a comment to another discover magazine blog once, “This isn’t democracy; it is sheep herding.”

    The issue of cynically wanting the economy to fail just so that the GoP can win an election falls on the party strategists and leaders, not the rank-and-file.

    In the Clinton impeachment votes, both parties voted along party lines. The Republicans supported Bush until it became evident that Bush was massively umpopular with the electorate at large – then they distanced themselves.

    For a Democratic Party equivalent, the only example I can think of at the national level in recent times is Jimmy Carter. A one-term President, did Democrats turn on him even surreptitiously (failing to campaign for him as enthusiastically as possible), which may have contributed to Reagan’s landslide? They probably wouldn’t have stopped Carter from losing; they might have stopped him from losing so badly. Certainly Carter faced opposition from Ted Kennedy’s supporters within the party.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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