The spectacle of the Republicans, like teenagers longing to be invited to the prom, floundering about in search of more popularity with American voters, would be comical if it didn’t reflect a near collapse of a workable political system. The Republicans are angry. They had firmly believed that the voters wouldn’t possibly reelect Barack Obama for a second term and that they would retake the Senate. Erroneous polling assumptions fueled their dreams of controlling both of the elected branches, giving them power to reverse most or all of Obama’s policies and impose their own philosophy on the economy. Exhilarated going into election night, they were totally unprepared for the thumping loss they sustained. That left them in a state of shock, and sensing that somehow they had been had.
As the Republicans search for a new and more electable identity they have a fundamental problem. Ever since they took their major right turn in 1964, they have made a series of bargains in order to strengthen their ranks: the Southern strategy, which validated racism; the Christian right; the Sagebrush Rebellion, which represented big ranching and farming interests as well as the mining industry; and the Club for Growth, a highly conservative anti-tax, anti-spending group that can pour money into primaries to knock off incumbents who don’t vote according to their views. However successful momentarily, this series of deals ultimately cost the Republicans broad national appeal and flexibility.
The emergence, as a result of the 2010 elections, of the Tea Party—partly grassroots and partly developed and exploited from national headquarters in Washington and supported by big money—as a national force pushed the Republican Party still further to the right. Many members of the Tea Party, or figures who ran for office with their backing, introduced a new concept of governing: they were against it. For the first time there was a sizable number of House members who had run on the explicit promise never to compromise. At the same time, Republicans took control of a large number of states, with new governors pushing conservative policies and having a significant impact on national policy.
Joe Scarborough, the former Republican Florida congressman turned philosopher at the breakfast table, frequently laments on his weekday morning show on MSNBC the Republican Party’s narrowing of its base and its outlook, and its consequent loss of appeal to the country at large. Repeatedly, Scarborough has expressed his distress over the facts that the Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, blown two opportunities to retake the Senate, and even lost the popular vote for the House in 2012, managing to hold on to a majority of seats only as a result of gerrymandering in Republican- controlled states.
In a recent speech to a conservative group, Scarborough observed:
I think the debate has been stifled. It has been stifled because we have created this conservative groupthink over thirty years that has become more and more narrow. A conservative groupthink that would allow all of our primary presidential candidates being asked if they would take a 10-to-1 deal on spending cuts to taxes, and everybody’s afraid to talk. Everybody’s afraid to talk about regulation.
The changed nature of the Republican Party hasn’t made for a happy situation for House Speaker John Boehner, a deal-maker of the old school whose idea of being a legislator is to work out legislative solutions. At a party retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in mid- January, Boehner, aware of the corner his troops were heading into, along with Paul Ryan, who has enjoyed the backing of the Tea Party members, set out to instill a bit of pragmatism into the Tea Party caucus. The leaders warned the Tea Party types that they were pushing the party into the fringe and playing into Obama’s hands. But in exchange for Tea Party mem- bers agreeing to a three-month ex- tension of the debt ceiing, postponing that crisis until mid-May, the party leaders had to agree to do the seemingly impossible—balance the budget in ten years, without additional tax revenues. This would force the House Republicans, already on the defensive for embracing Ryan’s astringent budget plan that included moving toward privatization of Medicare, to incur even more wrath from the broader public.
Attempts thus far of other Republican leaders to put a prettier face on their party have been essentially cosmetic. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal got predictable attention with a line in a speech shortly after the 2012 election saying that the Republicans should stop being “the stupid party.” Jindal said that they should appear less coddling of the wealthy—and then proposed that Louisiana replace the income tax with a sales tax, which is of course more regressive. (The sales tax is much in vogue with Republican governors, in part because it is backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which is funded by large corporations and the Koch brothers, and helped many of them get elected.)
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, not regarded as the cuddliest of congressmen, the day in early February before he was to give a highly promoted speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, fell back on a device long used by the party’s presidential candidates to try to demonstrate that they really do like blacks: from Richard Nixon with his newfound buddy Sammy Davis Jr. to Mitt Romney awkwardly posing for pictures with black schoolchildren. Cantor dropped by a private school for children in a low-income part of Washington where, as the cameras clicked away, he held a small black child in his arms and played with plastic dinosaurs. In his effort to give his party a more human face, Cantor proposed vouchers for education and the repeal of a tax on medical devices that the industry has been trying to excise from the new health care law. Like Jindal, Cantor proposed nothing that contradicted established Republican dogma.
With very big money coming in from strictly conservative ideologues along with specific policy instructions, and with the conservative think tanks moving further to the right, there has remained little reward and no incubator of consequence for moderate Republican inclinations. Indeed, moderates and even a conservative or two were knocked off in primaries for the 2010 and 2012 elections on grounds of ideological impurities, such as cooperating at all with the president.
After Dick Lugar, the longtime Indiana senator who specialized in foreign policy but had a conventional conservative domestic record, was defeated in a primary by Richard Mourdock, who had strong support from the Tea Party and the Club for Growth, Senate Republicans fretted aloud about the possibility of being “Lugared.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may well be challenged for reelection by a candidate from the right, causing this usually surefooted Senate leader to make some tactical mistakes. When Mourdock, as dim-witted as he was talkative on the subject of rape, was defeated by Congressman Joe Donnelly, the loss of what should have been a safe Republican Senate seat was a repeat of a pattern that began in 2010, in which Tea Party–backed candidates turned out to be embarrassments.
The impact of the Tea Party outruns its numbers. While forty-nine House members currently count themselves as belonging to the Tea Party Caucus, at least sixty-six have been affiliated with it at some point; and there are others who share the Tea Party philosophy but see joining a formal caucus as antithetical to their concept of being apolitical. Still more count themselves as highly conservative and, out of self-protection, vote the Tea Party line. These people ran against the “party establishment,” charging that it had sold out conservative principles by voting for the stimulus, TARP, and the auto bailout. They acquired great force by their perfervid opposition to the health care law, whether or not they understood it. They were also used as pawns by larger interests opposed to the bill who fed their paranoia about a government takeover of health care.
No modern president from either party had been confronted with such an obdurate opposition. In an institution where it is essential, “compromise” had never before been a term of obloquy. Regularly frustrated by the absolutists and those too frightened of the movement to challenge them, Boehner has less control over his flock than any Speaker in memory. It’s not that he’s lacking political skills; the Tea Party members and those who follow them won’t vote with Boehner simply out of party loyalty; they don’t owe him anything. They got to Congress with strong financial support from powerful interests and they have their own constituencies.
While Democrats might enjoy the scene of a dejected and squabbling Republican Party, this development isn’t really in their interest, or in the country’s. The point of winning is to govern; and one can govern through one’s own party plus a few renegades, or by forming more broad-based coalitions behind proposals that are acceptable to most of the country. The country needs a healthy two-party system, one that can forge widely accepted bipartisan agreements on the great issues of the day, as occurred over the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965. By contrast the fight over the 2010 passage of President Obama’s health care law was so bitter that it has carried over into its implementation.
More than half the governors, including all but one of the Republicans, have declined to set up the state exchanges through which consumers are supposed to be able to shop for competing insurance plans. FreedomWorks, the most powerful national Tea Party organization, has waged a crusade to “Block ObamaCare” by rejecting the exchanges. The joke is that if a state refuses to set up an exchange because it represents “big government,” the federal government will come in and do it. (Six Republican governors have accepted the Medicaid expansion in the health care law because the offer was too good to turn down.) Another tactic the Republicans have used to fight laws on the books is to block the appointments of the president’s nominees to administer them, and so the Senate stopped the nominations to administer two major new laws enacted during the president’s first term: the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank law to reform financial institutions. The president has yet to succeed in getting either position filled.
The one substantive matter on which leaders of the two parties agree there should be legislation passed is immigration reform—not just because it’s the right and urgent thing to do but because it’s in their interest. The Republicans panicked about the huge electoral advantage the president got in 2012 from Hispanic voters, whom he carried 71–29 percent. In their debates in the primaries last year most of the Republican candidates played to the strong anti-immigrant streak that dwells within the party’s rank and file. So the president owes the Hispanics and the Republicans need them.