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Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation

John Boehner; drawing by John Springs

Representative Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a Republican, from his state’s very northeasternmost corner up by Lake Erie and Pennsylvania, is loyal to Speaker John Boehner, his fellow Ohioan, and—by today’s standards—a moderate conservative who has made his disdain for those to his right clear. He’s called members of the Tea Party “knuckle-draggers…that hate taxes.” In December, when the Speaker lacked the votes in his own House Republican caucus to support his “Plan B,” a proposal to limit tax increases sharply, after negotiations with the White House had broken down, LaTourette chalked the failure up to “the same forty, fifty chuckleheads that all year…have screwed this place up.”

First elected in 1994, LaTourette came in with the Gingrich Revolution and was seen as a conservative in that era; but time and fervor have made his views seem a bit quaint—he’s big on transportation and actually appears to support a certain level of taxation to fund it. Back in the summer, he abruptly announced his retirement, specifically deploring his party’s drift toward unreason.

So it was shocking to hear him of all people, on New Year’s Day, after the Senate voted 89–8 to pass compromise legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, sniff that the bill was passed by “sleep-deprived octogenarians” and that “the Republicans who voted for it must have been drunk” (the bill passed around 2:30 AM on January 1). Washington is not nearly as obsessed with rank and politesse as it was a generation ago, but even in our coarser era, it was astounding to hear a House member speak of senators that way.

The people who were really drunk were the House Republicans, besotted with their idea of themselves as the exterminating angels of public-sector excess, as the protectors of the rich against the “moocher” class. After the lopsided Senate vote, when only five GOP senators voted no, many observers on New Year’s morning expected relatively easy passage of the Senate bill in the House. By early afternoon, though, it was clear that it wouldn’t be easy at all. Eric Cantor, the minority leader, let it get out that he was against the package—a blunt reminder to Boehner that Cantor was ready to lead a revolt against the deal and, possibly, against Boehner himself when the new Congress convened two days later to vote for Speaker.

In the end, of course, pressure was so great—as the afternoon progressed even the anchors on the Fox News channel were saying that if the country went over the cliff, House Republicans would be solely blamed for any resultant turmoil—that Boehner permitted the vote that night. He had, up to that point, abided by the so-called “Hastert Rule,” an unwritten edict dreamed up by House Republicans a decade ago holding that they would permit floor votes only on legislation that had the backing of a majority of the GOP caucus—“a majority of the majority.”

But he broke that rule on New Year’s night, and sure enough, the bill passed with the support of only a little more than one third of the Republicans. (LaTourette, apparently becalmed after getting things off his chest, sobered up and voted yes.) That is, had it been up to House Republicans alone, the bill would have died. Now, the hard-right Republicans will surely be even more incensed than usual as we go forward to the next fights, over the debt limit and the so-called “sequestration” budget cuts of around $1.2 trillion over ten years—and in the first year, 2013, roughly 9 percent across the board to the budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies—that Congress agreed to in August 2011.

It may seem as though Washington has seen enough of these showdowns during Obama’s presidency. But these have all been preliminaries. The main event arrives in March, when the statutory limit on government borrowing will have to be raised if the US is not to default on its financial commitments, many of them already voted into law by Congress.

To understand why, look back at how we reached this “cliff” in the first place. It came about because two deadlines hit the government simultaneously. First, the tax cuts made under George W. Bush expired at the end of 2012. Second, lawmakers seeking a broad agreement on the country’s fiscal future decided in 2011 to set the end of 2012 as their deadline for doing so. They concurred that if they failed to agree on a plan by that date, deep across-the-board spending cuts (“sequestration”) would automatically take effect by way of response to annual federal deficits. This would force them to act, so the thinking went. Back in August 2011, New Year’s Day 2013 seemed a long way away.

The larger backdrop for this maneuvering has to do with two underlying factors: the deficit spending undertaken by the Obama administration following the financial meltdown, and the long-standing concern among a bipartisan coterie of establishment figures about paying for entitlements in light of the coming retirement of the baby boomers. The forces of the right, whose real priorities are keeping taxes on the rich as low as possible and helping the poor as little as possible, have opportunistically hopped on the deficit and entitlement bandwagons as it has suited them.

The potential government shutdown of April 2011, the debt-ceiling negotiation of August 2011, the agreement on sequestration, the debates during the recent campaign about taxation and Medicare, and the New Year’s Day drama—all have been part of this larger debate, which will now be fully joined this spring. The Tea Party people want to slash the domestic budget, and numerous powerful forces, such as Pete Peterson’s foundation, have for years agitated to rein in entitlements.

All these factors point toward Republicans taking a much harder line in the spring. Here, it’s important to understand that Republican obstructionism is not merely ideological, although it is certainly that. Few realize that the Republicans have created a perverse political incentive system, which rewards obstruction of administration legislation and punishes cooperation with Democrats.

The story begins with some intensely political gerrymandering of congressional districts undertaken by state legislatures where Republicans took control in the 2010 elections. They drew maps that packed Democratic voters as tightly as possible into one district, while spreading the Republican numerical advantage around to surrounding districts as much as possible. Geoffrey R. Stone, the distinguished legal scholar at the University of Chicago, explained in a simple hypothetical how this worked in The Huffington Post:

To give a simple example, imagine four neighboring congressional districts, two of which are 60 percent Democratic and two of which are 60 percent Republican. One would expect that each party would win two seats in the House. But if the Republican state legislature re-draws the district lines so as to make one district 100 percent Democratic, and the other three districts each 67 percent Republican, then instead of each party winning two representatives, the Republicans will win in three of the four districts.1

Pennsylvania provides a notable example of this. Obama won the state by 5.4 percentage points, and Democrats swept all three statewide offices that were up for election. But Republicans won thirteen out of eighteen House seats. Similar results emerged in Virginia, which Obama carried but where Republicans took eight of eleven House seats, and in Ohio, where Obama prevailed handily but Republicans won twelve of sixteen House seats. Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin followed the pattern—all because Republicans controlled the state houses and drew the lines.

This aggressive district-packing resulted in the great oddity of the 2012 election: Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives outpolled Republicans by around 500,000 votes nationally, and yet the Republicans won 54 percent of the seats. The Democrats did gain eight seats, but they might have gained far more had Democratic voters not been packed into heavily Democratic districts.

The existence of these more partisan congressional districts has obvious ramifications for how politicians behave once in office. If you are a Republican who represents an ideologically heterogeneous district where Obama won around 50 percent of the vote, then obviously you will be more likely to behave in a moderate way. Such a district is also likely to be home to a number of aspiring Democrats, state legislators or others, who could mount a credible challenge against you. As you walk the tunnels from the House office buildings over to the Capitol on your way to vote, you will think about those potential challengers, and the thirty-second attack ads they might air against you for casting a vote out of step with the district’s mores.

But what if you come from a district that isn’t remotely like that? What if you come from a district that is so heavily Republican, and so strongly conservative, that your only pressure comes from the right? That is precisely the kind of district most House Republicans represent today.

We can pick any red state virtually at random and check the numbers. Take Kentucky, which Romney won with nearly 61 percent of the vote. The state has six congressional districts, one of which, based in Louisville, is held by a Democrat. The other five are held by Republicans. In none of those did President Obama receive more than 42 percent of the vote, topping 40 in just one of the five. In Louisiana’s five GOP districts (out of six), Obama failed to exceed 40 percent of the vote in any of the five. In Arizona’s four Republican-controlled districts, Obama did no better than 38.8 percent (he averaged 56.1 percent in the state’s five Democratic districts).

Something similar happened in regions across the country. In the new Congress, just fifteen Republicans out of 233 now represent districts that Obama carried last November. Of the thirteen states where Republican senators will seek reelection in 2014, Obama won just one, Maine. A large majority of Republican senators—thirty-seven out of forty-five—represent red states. And every Republican senator is very mindful of what happened to their ex-colleague Richard Lugar of Indiana last year, when he lost a primary to a Tea Party–backed candidate well to his right. Richard Mourdock went on to lose the general election in Indiana to the Democrat Joe Donnelly; but that’s no comfort to the Republican senators, many of whom represent states with active Tea Party contingents and live in fear of a right-wing primary challenge (as if many of these politicians aren’t extremely conservative themselves).

All this adds up to a political structure within the GOP that rewards obstruction and regards compromise with Obama not as reasonable bargaining with the duly elected president of the United States, but as treachery. The right-wing press—Fox, talk radio, the largest websites—reinforces this pressure daily. It is true that Republicans in the Senate at least came to agreement with Obama to avert going over the cliff. But there is every reason to think that Republicans, having (from their point of view) put off the spending and entitlement fight for the good of the economy, and facing heavy pressure from their base voters to take a stand, will be far less accommodating in March.

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    Geoffrey R. Stone, “Why Did the Republicans Win the House?,” The Huffington Post, November 10, 2012. 

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