The New Hagelian Dialectic

A few days ago Mickey Kaus delivered one of his usual top-spin-heavy counter-intuitive schemes about how the best way to kill immigration reform is . . . the quick confirmation of Chuck Hagel.  Say what?

Actually I understand exactly what he means, and have thought for a while about laying out here a similar theory of my own about inter-party dynamics.  Reflecting on the passing of Robert Bork last month prompted this idea.  When opposition parties find themselves on the end of a long losing streak they start to get a “back-against-the-wall” feeling that prompts them to decide to find a place to inflict a defeat on the ruling party.  In 1987, Democrats dismayed at their long losing streak to Reagan found the Bork nomination a handy place to draw a line and hand Reagan a stinging defeat.  It helped—in fact is was indispensible—that the liberal hive went to DefCon1 on Bork, just as conservatives groups will likely be vocal in opposition to a bad immigration reform.  (Though “bad immigration reform” is probably a tautology, isn’t it?)  So, says Mickey, if Hagel sails through, expect the GOP to look elsewhere to deal Obama a defeat:

What might stop amnesty? Well, the House Republicans, of course. Why might they do it? Because they are pissed off after losing a string of fights to Obama over … Hagel and the sequester and spending and gun control.

This thought is grounded in one of two apparent theories of Washington political dynamics. The first, more familiar theory is grounded in competitive sports and war. There’s a big battlefield. One side starts racking up victories, it gains ground and “momentum.” It’s “on a roll,” Meanwhile, the other side is “demoralized,” in “disarray.” After it loses again, it might go into “retreat” and stop offering meaningful resistance. This is the theory Rahm Emanuel was implicitly citing when he argued that small victories, at the beginning of the Obama Presidency, would lay the groundwork for bigger victories. It’s the theory the press is alluding to when it says a Hagel defeat, coming so soon after the Susan Rice’s withdrawal, would be a crippling setback for Obama.

The second theory is based more on hydraulics and human emotions. It argues that Washington wants to be in a sort of equilibrium. Victories don’t beget further victories. They beget resentment, which will express itself somehow until equilibrium is restored.   If Obama wins the Hagel nomination, that doesn’t mean the Republicans are going to leave the field. This isn’t American Idol. They aren’t going anywhere, at least for two years. They’ll filibuster and block until they are appeased either by victories of their own or by concessions.

Now that’s a Hagelian dialectic I can understand!


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