On the domestic front, the first six months of President Obama’s second term have been dominated by two issues: immigration reform and the budget. On the former, a consensus has emerged between Democrats and more pragmatic members of the Republican Party, with Congress poised to vote on a bill that combines a path to citizenship with more border security and tougher enforcement mechanisms. The two parties are sharply divided on how to approach the budget, but—again—there’s room for Democrats to work with more pragmatic members of the opposition.
But that’s only in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, where majorities have near-absolute control over the conduct of business, there are no negotiations and there is no agenda. Instead, there is a fractured, squabbling Republican Party. In today’s Washington Post, Paul Kane details the extent of the dysfunction. “[T]he most momentous policy decisions, including an immigration overhaul and a fresh deadline for raising the federal debt limit,” he writes, “have no coherent strategy to consolidate Republicans, much less take on the Democrats.”
Indeed, there’s no guarantee that House conservatives will accept any deal to raise the debt limit or reform immigration laws. The latter isn’t urgent, but refusing to do the former could plunge the United States and the world into a second recession. As we saw two years ago, however, that’s no deterrent to the theologically anti-government conservatives that dominate the House. Speaker John Boehner has some flexibility, but not much—he risks revolt if he tries to move without buy-in from right-wing members of the chamber.
This entire situation—and the gridlock its produced—highlights the core problem facing American politics. The Republican Party.
In the our system, a normal political party does a few things. It tries to win elections around its policies and concerns, if it loses, it works within norms and rules to advance its agenda as much as possible, and it refrains from scorched-earth obstructionist tactics as a way to stymie duly-passed laws.
By that standard, and it’s not a hard one to meet, the current Republican Party is not a normal political party. While it does work to contest elections, it’s only somewhat concerned with implementing a program, and is dismissive of the norms and rules that are supposed to govern political conduct. The last four years are proof positive. Since 2009, the national agenda has been crowded with major issues: economic recovery, financial system and health care reform, climate change, debt reduction.
Conservative answers exist to each problem, but they require deviation from right-wing, anti-government orthodoxy. For the Republican base, however, this is verboten. The result is a party that dogmatically applies old solutions to new puzzles. How do we account for a massive demand shortfall in the economy? Tax and spending cuts, says the GOP. How do we repair the health care system? Tax and spending cuts, says the GOP. How do we prevent a repeat of the financial collapse? We need to deregulate, says the GOP. And how do we prevent climate change from ravaging human civilization? Oh, explains the Republican Party, none of that is real.
These problems would be less acute if the GOP were able to compromise and work with its opposition. But it’s not. To a large chunk of the Republican Party, Democrats have no legitimate right to govern the country. A view which justifies attacks on majority rule in the Senate—in particular, the new, 60-vote requirement for all legislation in the Senate—attacks on the ability of the executive branch to carry out its duties (by blocking nominations), and nullification by obstruction.
Attempts to fix the GOP—and bring it into modernity—are treated with hostility, from activists, donors, and the media elites who wield wide influence over the party and its constituent parts. If you’re on the other side, however, you’re treated to wide acclaim. Take Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Between his lazy mendacity, his demagoguery, and his adherence to dogma and extremism, he’s a poster child for everything wrong with the Republican Party. He’s also one of the most popular figures in the party, who could have a decent shot at the presidential nomination in three years. For those who want to reform the GOP, career paths are short; for those who want to enable its worst habits and excesses, the sky is the limit.
The Republican Party is broken, and fixing it is the only way to bring long-term sanity to our politics. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of change. Last week, writers on the left and the right engaged in a debate over the conservative “reform” movement, and who counted as a “reformer.” It was a fascinating conversation with one major takeaway: Regardless of who “counts” as as a reformer, the obvious fact is that they have little influence over the current direction of the GOP. They lack the power necessary to challenge Republican leadership, break the party’s “fever,” and begin to reestablish it as a mainstream institution.
If there’s anyone who could begin the process of fixing the GOP, it’s a Republican president. But if the presidential primaries told us anything, it’s that conservative voters are looking for candidates who either reflect the party’s dogmatism, or are content to live with it. The alternative—a New Republican, of sorts—is just not in the cards.