Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio; drawing by John Springs

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.


Yuri Gripas/Reuters

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner at a press conference on the ‘fiscal cliff,’ Washington, D.C., December 21, 2012

But while immigration reform may be seen as the next great civil rights advance, the actual working out of a bipartisan bill is likely to prove difficult. Such bills have foundered before on fierce regional, commercial, and partisan differences. The Republicans are in a deep hole and it’s not at all clear that even if an immigration law were passed Hispanics will turn to them in large numbers. As in the case of other minorities, more than one issue is at stake. As long as the Republicans worship at the altar of “smaller government”—a euphemism for cutting domestic programs such as education at all levels as well as food stamps, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid—their appeal to groups they’ve been losing will remain limited.

Immigration isn’t a newfound legislative problem for the Republicans: a recent proposal worked out by a bipartisan group of eight senators strongly resembles the fairly enlightened program of naturalization and eventual citizenship proposed by George W. Bush. The Bush bill was denounced by members of his own party as providing “amnesty,” and Democrats weren’t keen to give him a legislative triumph on immigration. In a speech in Las Vegas in late January, the president laid out his outline for an immigration reform bill, which is close to the one set out by the eight senators, and in a rhetorical flourish Obama threatened that if Congress didn’t pass an immigration bill fairly soon he would send up his own proposal and “insist that they vote on it right away.” But he knows that if he were to send up his own bill on immigration—or pretty much anything else—the Republicans would automatically oppose it. It has come to that.

The immigration issue is caught up in presidential politics—which could also doom it. Even in such a palace of ambition as Capitol Hill, Marco Rubio’s hunger for still higher office has been quite evident ever since he hit town as a freshman senator from Florida in 2011. He wrote an autobiography, burnishing it a bit, and marketed himself as an exceptionally promising figure. His rocketing to fame in Washington in a short time isn’t without risks. Though he was without notable accomplishments, Republican leaders felt that this youthful-looking man with a Hispanic surname was just the one to help them out of their difficulty, and to be the face of their immigration reform effort. (Rubio is forty-one.) Though at first Rubio indicated some ambivalence about staking his reputation on immigration policy’s tricky terrain, the role offered him substantive prominence. And Rubio could provide the Republicans cover in various eventualities. He also could become the fall guy.

Rubio is one of the bipartisan group of eight senators who announced that they had agreed on an approach, so he has to play a dual role: work with the other Democrats and Republicans in the group and also keep other conservative Republicans as well as members of the Hispanic community (itself divided) mollified. And even before an actual bill has been drafted, a party divide within the group of eight is becoming apparent. Neither the group’s nor the president’s proposals would have undocumented immigrants getting citizenship for a very long time, perhaps around twenty-four years—both take the politically careful condition of having illegal immigrants seeking citizenship go “to the back of the line,” so as not to displace the large number of people waiting who had got here legally. A potential deal-breaker is what is to be the connection between making the two-thousand-mile border between the US and Mexico acceptably tight and allowing illegal immigrants to get on the path to citizenship.

Rubio has reassured conservatives that he will insist that southwestern governors be given a veto on whether the border between the US and Mexico is sufficiently impenetrable before other immigration reforms can go forward—thus there would be a “trigger.” A totally impenetrable border is widely understood to be a fantasy, but a governor with a strong anti-immigration position, such as Jan Brewer of Arizona, might never be satisfied that it’s strong enough to allow illegal immigrants to begin their way to becoming citizens. In his response to the president’s State of the Union address, Rubio spoke about immigration in broad clichés, but at that point he wasn’t his own man on the subject, caught in congressional thickets. But Charles Schumer of New York, speaking for the Senate Democrats, says there will be no such trigger. In the end Rubio may have to decide if he wants a bill or a campaign issue.

So now the Republican Party—having become a refuge for better-off and older white voters, especially males, and for millions who couldn’t bear the idea of the presidential office being occupied by a black man, a party whose presidential candidates haven’t shied away from making racist appeals—is confronted with a population that’s moving inexorably toward a nonwhite majority. While the crossover is not estimated to occur until 2043, each new group of Americans who reach voting age will increasingly reflect the trend. The Republicans have a demographic crisis that from long habit they’re ill-equipped to cope with.

Meanwhile their leaders have been trying to avert the serial cataclysms they have done so much to bring about: the across-the-board cuts in federal programs (the sequester) that was to be imposed on March 1 barring a compromise on a budget; a possible shutdown of the federal government at the end of March, when spending authority would run out; and in May the return of the debt limit. This government-by-crisis has threatened to define the Republicans in Washington as the party of green-eyeshaded accountants with hardly a thought for the well-being of the middle class, not to mention the poor. (The 2012 primaries were littered with jokes about food stamps.) It was considered progress that House leaders persuaded the most radical members that shutting down the government would be a more reasonable approach than risking another politically calamitous government default—risking a second lowering of the US’s credit rating. This was a sign of the extent to which the idea of governing has lost its moorings.

Both sides scrambled to avert the sequester. Republicans and Democrats floated proposals for ways out—in part so they wouldn’t be blamed if the sequester actually happened. But having conceded a small tax increase on the highest income brackets to get past the so-called fiscal cliff on New Year’s Day—a move more symbolic than marking any great change in priorities—the Republicans returned to their accustomed position and declared that revenues would not be raised.

The somewhat overinflated drama of the crises about funding the government has tended to obscure the more fundamental point: the Republicans have been succeeding in pushing the president toward precisely the wrong economic policy for a nation still coming out of a severe recession. The Washington debate is based more on ideology than on history. Reflecting ignorance of the fate of European nations that have blundered into ruinous austerity programs, the predominant argument is that the most urgent thing to be done at the moment is to cut spending. This proposition has become such a truism that neither the president nor a significant number of elected Democrats are willing to publicly challenge it.

Americans who long for a group of moderate Republicans with whom a Democratic president might deal are in for a disappointment. (Bill Clinton had ten or twelve Senate Republicans willing to compromise on or support a bill he favored. On a very rare good day, Obama has four.) That Republican Party is gone and the base of the party isn’t going to permit its return, at least not for the foreseeable future. If anything, the party lines are hardening. The Republican leaders are desperately trying to make sure that the kinds of nutcases who have received nominations for Senate seats in the last two elections, at the expense of more reasonable candidates—and who went on to lose what were likely Republican seats—will no longer jeopardize their party’s fortunes. Karl Rove’s announcement that he would set up an organization to try to prevent likely losers from getting nominated over more trustworthy conservatives isn’t sitting at all well with the grass roots, who will not take dictation from “the establishment” on whom they should nominate.

As Nate Silver of The New York Times has pointed out, there are fewer “swing” districts in the House than ever before, creating a great disincentive to compromise. He wrote, “Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts, where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.” The great shift toward the right on the Republican side in Congress occurred in 2010, when participation, as usual with off-year elections, was limited to the most zealous. The result was a dramatic increase in Republican control of entire state governments—from which have flowed the laws to break up public employee unions and tighten restrictions on abortions to the point of effectively strangling Roe v. Wade, as well as the efforts to fix federal elections through restricting voting rights of supporters of Democrats, and in some states even tinker with the electoral college. State governments of course do reapportionment, which can determine which party controls the House of Representatives.

Is the country going to be governable? We need parties that can sort out our differences without threat from extremes that weaken the democratic system. People in despair over politics in Washington would be well advised to start paying more attention to who gets elected to their state capitals.

—February 19, 2013