Sunday, October 20, 2013

The GOP Is Not At War With Itself

Now that the twin perils of the government shutdown and debt ceiling have been temporarily alleviated, pundits have quickly turned to a new narrative, namely, that having been brought to heel by the President, Republicans will now act reasonably in the coming budget negotiations. This enthusiasm stems from comments like the one made by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, saying he would not go in for another government shutdown and in reporting that the rock-ribbed conservative Chamber of Commerce will pour money into campaigns to oust so-called "tea party" Republicans. [1] In all of this, of course, the Inside the Beltway crowd wistfully hopes for its elusive Holy Grail - "the grand bargain." 

This idea makes sense in theory. Politicians are nothing if not self-interested, and the sagging poll numbers Republicans face and even the ever-so-modest effort D.C. pundits are making at actually assessing blame where it is due, would suggest that it is in their best interest to compromise with the President and cease their hostage taking tactics. Added to this is the conventional wisdom that the "tea party" is merely a vocal minority within the GOP caucus, and therefore, if "responsible" Republicans step up to tamp down the fiery rhetoric, the shit show that has passed for what has gone on in Washington since Republicans assumed control of the House in January 2011 will stop. 

I am not as sanguine as people who get paid to opine on politics for a living. First, the idea that the "tea party" is merely a minority within the larger GOP caucus is not accurate. Take the vote on opening government and raising the debt ceiling. More than 60% of the House GOP voted against the deal - in other words, for defaulting on our debt obligations. This vote was not an outlier. Nearly 30% of the House GOP caucus voted against Hurricane Sandy relief, while 151 (or 62%) voted against the permanent extension of George W. Bush-era income tax levels at the end of 2012, even though the bill benefited roughly 99% of all tax payers. [2] 

On legislation that was once unexceptional, like reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, every "no" vote came from the Republican side of the aisle, and comprised one-third of the whole caucus. [3] Still other legislation, like the farm bill, which was once passed with wide bipartisan support, is stuck in limbo because the House passed a version that eviscerates food stamp eligibility. In that vote, less than 10% of Republicans voted against the bill; put another way, more than 90% of the caucus supported taking food out of the mouths of poor people. [4] 

And while it is easy to focus on the shenanigans of House GOP'ers, the truth is, Senate Republicans were the poster children for government obstruction until the House GOP went nuclear. Consider that the use of the filibuster in the Senate reached unprecedented levels in the President's first two years in office only to be surpassed during the second half of his term as Republicans attempted to achieve, as our old friend Senator McConnell famously said, the goal of making Mr. Obama a one-term president. [5] Even after the President's re-election, instead of folding their obstructionist hand, the Senate GOP doubled down, taking the extraordinarily rare action of filibustering not one, but two of the President's cabinet appointments (Chuck Hagel and John Brennan) and Rob Cordray, the President's appointee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. [6] In addition, Republicans slow-walked the appointments of Tom Perez (Labor) and Gina McCarthy (EPA) [7]. Indeed, this lockstep obstruction was not broken until Senator Reid threatened to change the rules on the use of filibuster during the middle of the term. [8]

It is ironic that people like Senator McConnell, or for that matter, purported "moderates" like Kelly Ayotte or Saint John McCain, have been so vocal in their disdain for the more radical elements of their party because each has engaged, in their own way, in the same type of scorched earth politics. And even if one wants to give credence to the idea that sensible conservatives exist, it is only because the rightward tilt of the party has been so extreme that was once extreme now looks relatively "moderate" in comparison to people like Ted Yoho or Blake Fahrentold. [9] 

Ultimately, these various factions disagree on tactics not policy. Big business has done quite well under President Obama, thank you very much. The stock market has more than doubled since its 2009 bottom and has closed in on all-time highs within the past year. The coffers of multi-national corporations brim with trillions in profits even as they've shorn their workforces and hide their profits overseas. Regulatory fears have been largely unfounded, and, as noted above, the President was nice enough to give permanent tax certainty at the end of 2012. Lastly, discretionary government spending as a share of GDP is at its lowest level since the 1950s [10] even as we desperately need investments in infrastructure, education and research and development.

What the GOP has done while never controlling more than one house of Congress during the Presidency of a Democrat who won election (and re-election) with commanding electoral majorities is one of the great unwritten stories of the time. Indeed, negotiating over a grand bargain would really be like "licking the bowl" after making the cake. Having, through coercion and threat, squeezed government spending, permanently extended tax cuts for 99% of Americans and blocked major pieces of legislation, for Republicans to add something like Chained CPI to their goodie basket would be the cherry on the sundae. [11] The media's failure to see these Republican gains is largely due to how they define "concessions." Somehow, things like opening government and paying our bills are seen as compromising by Republicans instead of what they really are - the bare minimum definition of a functioning government. Meanwhile, because the media elite are largely insulated from the people whose lives are adversely affected by things like sequester cuts or government shutdowns, they are more than happy to frame cuts to earned benefit programs like Medicare or Social Security as reasonable compromises even though asking the wealthy, whose accumulation of wealth is at its highest point since before the Great Depression, to pay a little more, would be far more appropriate.

Ultimately, "tea party" types serve as a convenient foil for Republicans who were once considered extreme, allowing them to look moderate while still advancing the same pro-corporate, anti-abortion, low-tax policies that have defined the modern conservative movement from the time Ronald Reagan came to Washington. At the end of the day, the reason the fever won't break, the lunatics run the asylum and the hostage taking will continue is not because establishment Republicans have failed to get religion, it is because these parts of the party are not at war with one another, they simply disagree about how to get to the same destination. 


1. For the McConnell quote, see, For the Chamber of Commerce, see generally,  




5. See generally,

6. Republicans took the novel position that they would filibuster ANY CFPB appointee, not just Mr. Cordray. 

7. McCarthy was treated particularly shabbily. Senator David Vitter sent her more than 1,100 questions to respond to and months went by before she was brought up for a vote. 


9. A recent study found that the Republican party is more conservative than it has been in 100 years:


11. The President has signaled his willingness to consider Chained CPI in the context of a "balanced" budget reduction package:


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