Everyone says it, and has said it since the 2010 midterm elections, when the Tea Party crowd wrested control of the House from the John Boehner Republicans – the government has ground to a halt. Nothing gets done. There’s the Democrat-controlled Senate trying to get things done – they even passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill last year – and the Republican-led House where everything goes to die. Over there they want things stopped – Obamacare specifically, and immigration reform, but most anything else will do – and they’ll stop at nothing to stop whatever Obama seems to want, or whatever any Democrat seems to want, or even what the public wants – like simple background checks for all gun purchases, or raising the minimum age, or extending long-term unemployment benefits in this still crappy job market. John Boehner didn’t want a government shutdown over defunding and then dismantling Obamacare, which was never going to work, but he got one. It wasn’t his party any longer, although he seems to have thought that the massive damage that sixteen-day shutdown did to the Republicans would teach the Tea Party Republicans a thing or two about the folly of total intransigence. It didn’t – one man’s mindless total intransigence is another man’s noble and unwavering principle. Boehner also had to contend with that newly elected Ted Cruz in the Senate, the Tea Party guy who was meeting secretly with key House members nominally loyal to Boehner, telling them how to undercut Boehner and make sure the government shut down. One single Tea Party guy in the Senate only made things worse for Boehner – he was lucky to stave off a refusal to raise the debt limit, which would have meant we’d formally default on our financial obligations, throwing the world’s interlocking financial systems into chaos and collapse. The Democrats, of course, had nothing to do with any of this. All they could do is watch.
All anyone could do was watch. Government had stopped working. The had been that 2012 book It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism – from Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein – with its central thesis – Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem:
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
They shouldn’t have said that. None of the political talk shows would interview them about the book. It broke the rule – you know, things are awful but, to be fair, both sides are to blame. That has to be said. News organizations can’t take sides, and they certainly didn’t want two of the most respected senior guys from two quite different think tanks telling them to wake the hell up and look at what’s happening, providing clear and unambiguous evidence for everyone to see that the Republicans had finally lost it. This was an impossible situation for those who book all those political talks shows. There was no way to prod these two into saying, as they should, that the Democrats were just as bad – absolutely intransigent about their own issues and thus just as dangerous. Their thesis was that just wasn’t so, and they could prove it – that was the whole point. Chris Hayes interviewed them. Bill Moyers did. That was about it. The book disappeared, as if it had never been written.
Ah, but some things take time. One must not say the bleeding obvious too soon. Now, almost two years later, Pew Research has just released new polling that shows people are beginning to arrive at where Mann and Ornstein were in the first place, seeing the Republican Party as far more uncompromising and ideologically extreme than the Democratic Party, and also showing that the Democrats hold a big edge on which party is concerned with the needs of ordinary people:
By a margin of 52% to 27%, the public says Democrats are more willing than Republicans to work with political leaders from the other party. A 54% majority also says the Republican Party is more extreme in its positions, compared with 35% of Democrats.
By a 20-point margin, the public sees Democrats (52%) as being more concerned than Republicans (32%) with the needs of people like themselves, while a plurality says Republicans are more influenced by lobbyists and special interests (47% vs. 30% saying Democrats). In addition, four-in-ten believe the Democratic Party governs in a more honest and ethical way (41%), compared with 31% who choose the Republicans.
Well, it took long enough, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wonders what this could mean:
It’s hard to know how much this will matter in 2014. After all, the same poll also finds that the GOP holds a small edge on which party should be trusted on the economy (Dems view this as a ”technocratic” know-how number that doesn’t go to views of each party’s priorities, the more important metric). And at any rate, the structural factors underlying the 2014 elections will probably dominate.
But these findings are interesting, because they suggest Americans may broadly perceive that there’s a basic imbalance in our political system that has led to all the chaos and dysfunction.
That might mean a shift in all the upcoming elections, a shift away from the new Tea Party dominated Republican Party, or a big change in what the Republican Party has become, where they jettison Ayn Rand and Duck Dynasty zealots. That’s what Obama had argued might happen in his interview with the New Yorker – he thought Republicans probably would eventually come up with a more moderate and ”affirmative” agenda for the middle class. They’d have to, to survive, but Sargent points out that Salon’s Brian Beutler argues that there’s no way that could happen, as there are “structural” issues that make such a thing impossible:
The idiosyncrasies of the Republican base make appealing to moderate voters a zero-sum game for the party, and thus eliminate the incentive that, for instance, impelled Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s to cater to less-liberal voters.
There’s no equivalence, and Sargent puts it this way:
Republicans have become more rigidly conservative, Democrats have not retreated into an “equally rigid reactionary leftism,” with the result that there simply may be no policy space left into which Republicans can moderate.
Both parties have become more ideological over the years, but only one has become culturally extreme and inflexible. One of the consequences is that the country’s policy commitments have become more conservative than they might have been if this polarization had been symmetric. But another is that Republicans have a hard time tacking left without bumping into a niche that’s already been filled.
Sargent had already argued that the electorate isn’t nearly as polarized on the issues as Congressional dysfunction makes it appear and now says this:
On many major challenges – immigration reform, the need for infrastructure investments to spur the recovery, how to tackle long term fiscal challenges, the need to maintain a strong safety net – there is broad majority support for what can loosely be described as Democratic solutions. Even on Obamacare – where there is more polarization and overall disapproval remains high - there is more public agreement than you might think on at least some of its core principles.
But this broad consensus is obscured by the fact that the House GOP positions agenda is heavily skewed towards the preoccupations of the Tea Party base. Indeed… this is particularly visible on economic and poverty issues, where the party’s positions on inequality, the minimum wage, and unemployment benefits are overwhelmingly shared by Tea Party Republicans, while large numbers of non-Tea Party Republicans side with the rest of the public.
So we have a very odd situation here:
It’s frequently argued that the electorate is neatly “polarized” down the middle. I’d argue that this impression has been exaggerated by an unconventional situation in the House of Representatives, where most Republican lawmakers are cossetted away in safe, conservative districts and have every incentive (such as plaudits from the conservative entertainment complex) to maintain maximum opposition to the Obama agenda.
Today’s Pew poll suggests Americans may broadly grasp the basic imbalances at play in our politics, even if many pundits continue to refuse to reckon with them.
It’s about time. The next time some Democrat is on CNN arguing that the Republicans have made it impossible to govern this country, or even provide basic services, and the host tells them to admit it, the Democrats are just as bad, viewers may switch over to the Food Network to see how to fry a trout the right way. Glance up at the G. K. Chesterton quote on the masthead here – “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” Now they see.
Earlier this month, E. J. Dionne’s wrote a column on how there really is a majority consensus behind ideas about ”economic justice” and the safety net, which is oddly obscured because one party remains captive to a conservative minority that wants to unravel that consensus:
The current debate persistently exaggerates how divided we are on core questions involving social justice; we are far more united than our politics permit us to be. A survey released at the end of December by Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm, found that Americans supported extending unemployment insurance by a margin of 55 percent to 34 percent. Several recent surveys, including a Fox News poll, found that about two-thirds of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage. …
Most Americans broadly accept the New Deal consensus. We may disagree about this or that regulation or spending program. We may squabble over exactly how our approaches to policy should be updated for a new century. But there is far more agreement among the American people than there is among Washington lobbies, members of Congress or political commentators on the core proposition that government should help us through rough patches and guarantee a certain level of economic fairness… so on matters of economic justice, we shouldn’t let a defective political system distract us from what we have in common.
In fact, Jonathan Chait has been saying the same thing – there is probably a majority consensus in both houses of Congress for an agenda that includes infrastructure repair, immigration reform, and a long term budget deal – but then there’s the House Republican leadership, spooked by threats from the Tea Party to end their careers in the next low-turnout primary by running a Tea Party zealot against them, who then, out of fear, refuse to allow votes on things that could win a House majority easily. It’s a mess. Chait notes that the recent short term budget deal broke this pattern, but we’ll probably see it again on immigration, on any big budget compromise with new revenues, and job creation proposals (including infrastructure spending) – that’s just how it is. Chait also mentions gay issues, where the House Republican leadership has yet to allow a vote on a measure ending anti-gay workplace discrimination that already passed the Senate, even if the culture is shifting in favor of gay rights, rapidly.
So everyone now sees what Mann and Ornstein saw – one party, and only one party, scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Recently, Rick Perlstein put it this way:
Have you ever noticed how conservatives who say the most controversial things imaginable think no one actually disagrees with them?
They will admit that, yes, people might claim to disagree. But they will explain, if pressed, that those who do so are lying, or nuts, or utter the non-truths they utter out of a totalitarian will to power, or are poor benighted folks cowed or confused by those aforementioned totalitarians – which, of course, makes the person “finally” telling “the truth” a hero of bottomless courage. Or the people who disagree are simply stupid as a tree stump. This is why “agree to disagree” is not an acceptable trope in the conservative lexicon. A genuine right-winger will be so lacking in intellectual imagination – in cognitive empathy – that imagining how anyone could sincerely reason differently from them is virtually impossible.
Have you ever noticed…?
Yes. And it’s really irritating, but we were warned. The warning was suppressed in the name of being fair to both sides. We had to find out on our own, and the new Pew poll shows that did. And by the way, the editors at the National Review are now forcefully urging House Republicans to “do nothing” on immigration reform, absolutely nothing. You see, things are going so well for the party on Obamacare that a fight on this would tear the party apart, and ruin the push to get rid of Obamacare entirely, an effort that’s going to work any day now, because no one actually disagrees with them on the evil that is Obamacare. And Mitt Romney is going to win in a landslide.
But wait! Three Republican senators – Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Orrin Hatch – finally rolled out an Obamacare replacement plan that no one expected. America has been waiting for this for four years, except Matthew Yglesais see this as surrender:
In its official operations the way the bill works is to first repeal Obamacare and then replace it with a new law that happens to retain some of Obamacare’s most popular features. For example, “insurers would be barred from imposing lifetime limits on medical claims and required to allow individuals to remain on their parents’ policies until the age of 26.” And rather than eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s restrictions on insurers charging older people higher premiums than younger people, the senators would simply make the restrictions a bit less strict. And while Coburn/Burr/Hatch doesn’t want to altogether ban insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions, they “would require insurers to offer coverage to anybody who has applied as long as they have maintained continuous coverage, regardless of whether they are switching health plans or shifting from employer-based health care to the individual market.”
In other words, rather than scrapping the main pillars of the Affordable Care Act entirely, they would partially roll them back.
Conversely, while conservative wonks have traditionally favored a big bang approach to eliminating the massive tax subsidies that keep employer-provided insurance together, “in consideration of the backlash against the way that Obamacare has disrupted people’s insurance coverage, the new GOP proposal would maintain the employer health insurance bias.”
It’s an mash-up of everything already in Obamacare, watered down and renamed, paid for by a Rube Goldberg tax scheme, and all Medicaid funds go to the states, to spend as they wish – on funny hats for the state legislators if they wish.
Yglesais is not impressed:
Relatively to the status quo that existed in 2009, it would constitute modestly remaking the health care system along liberal lines. Most of all, as a political document it reflects an appreciation of the overwhelming political power of the status quo. You can’t kick those 25-year-olds off their parents’ insurance plan. You can’t deny the currently insured the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing that getting sick won’t make them uninsurable. You can’t change tax policy in a way that’s too disruptive.
And this plan isn’t going to pass in 2014. It’s not going to pass in 2015. And it’s not going to pass in 2016. By 2017, Medicaid expansion and subsidized exchange plans will be the new status quo. Are the Coburns, Burrs, and Hatches of 2017 really going to be willing to blow that up?
Efforts like this explain the new Pew poll. Americans are coming to have one simple question for Republicans. Are you kidding?
Apparently they are kidding:
Republicans have a strange new debt limit strategy: Demand conditions attached but promise not to default if Democrats refuse to comply.
“I think for the president to ask for a clean debt ceiling [increase] when we have the debt the size of our economy is irresponsible,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Fox News Sunday. “I think the president is taking an unreasonable position to suggest that we ought to treat his request to raise the debt ceiling like some kind of motherhood resolution that everybody says aye and we don’t do anything, when we have the stagnant economy and this massive debt created under his administration.”
Fighting words! House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has similarly warned that Republicans will insist on attaching conditions to any resolution that raises the country’s borrowing limit and prevents a potentially disastrous breach in late February. They may tie it to legislation that scraps a stability mechanism in Obamacare that they call an insurer “bailout,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) signaled.
But what if Democrats reject the demand, as they have vowed to?
That’s simple. The Republicans promise, up front, that they’ll cave:
“We’re never going to default. The Speaker and I made that clear. We’ve never done that,” McConnell said. Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel, calling on the White House to negotiate a solution amenable to the House, similarly said the Speaker believes “we should not default on our debt, or even get close to it.”
What? They’ll take the economy hostage, and lay out their demands, while promising that if Obama and the Democrats refuse to meet their demands, they’ll shrug and forget all about any of it? This is preemptive surrender in a war they decided to fight for no reason at all, but understandable:
“We take seriously the fact that McConnell is scared to death of losing his seat and that could impair his judgment on this issue,” said a Democratic Senate leadership aide, mockingly referring to the GOP leader’s re-election bid this year.
Yep, he can go back to Kentucky and tell voters there that he fought the good fight, and lost, tragically and nobly, and hope no one notices that before the fight began he told the big bad enemy that the big bad enemy had already won. Maybe they won’t notice and continue to be outraged at the Kenyan tyrant in the White House, the Muslim-atheist usurper who’s so dumb he can’t even form a coherent sentence without a TelePrompTer and has a devious and intricate plot to turn America communist, or something. McConnell has his hopes, but the whole business is an epic waste of time.
It’s not like people don’t notice. The government ground to a halt a few years ago. Everyone sees that, and now they’ve figured out why. It just took a few years, and maybe the press will one day figure it out too – to be fair about it.