Note to House GOP: Governing is an option
Gridlock is not inevitable.
All of the commentary I have heard and read since John Boehner’s resignation (including my own) takes it as inevitable that the next Speaker will be stuck in exactly the same quagmire as Boehner.
Analyses differ only on the margins: Can a new speaker produce better optics and be a more attractive spokesmodel for the GOP brand? Will disarray in the caucus hurt the Republicans in next year’s elections? Will the right-wingers gain clout in the caucus?
This much is taken as given: The next speaker will try to arm-twist and cajole party factions into some kind of unhappy alliance and will fail just like Boehner did.
I totally expect that will happen. But it isn’t inevitable, not by a long stretch. If it does happen, it will be a choice, not a destiny.
The House Republicans and their leadership could adapt a radically different strategy than Boehner’s failed course. The majority of House Republicans, who are not tea party purists, could elect one of their own, dump the right-wingers in the trash heap of history, cooperate and compromise with House Democrats on a few doable projects and create a modest record of actually passing laws and governing in a grown-up manner before the next election.
In Bushian fashion, call it the House Surge.
“What are you smoking?” you may be thinking. Certainly that is what the pundits would say. That scenario is impossible!
Well, it isn’t. It is an obvious strategic alternative.
Indeed, it is the way Congress has operated for much of its history, perhaps most of its history. There is nothing the least bit unusual in having a majority party that can’t deliver a majority of votes to pass key bills on its own and so makes deals with the other party. We fall for a logical fallacy in thinking that because it hasn’t happened recently in the House, it can’t happen now. Well, it does happen in the Senate once in awhile (e.g. Iran deal).
There are a number of issues where majorities of Democrats and Republicans in the House could compromise and pass important, if not epic, legislation that the Senate and president could embrace: infrastructure investment, modest tax reform, immigration policy, prison and sentencing reform and budgeting.
So what are the inevitable and unavoidable political truths that make the House Surge such a preposterous option?
- Except for the most hard-core conservative incumbents, House Republicans fear primary challenges from the right and will never blatantly antagonize that faction.
- A posture of blanket opposition to everything President Obama has ever said, done and wanted is the core ideology of the Republican Party today and the key to its electoral success in 2016. Compromise would fatally weaken that ideology.
- Voters will not reward Republicans next November for being productive legislators; they could care less.
- Most House Republicans have paid so much lip service to the tea party agenda that they’d look like hypocrites.
- The Democrats would never play ball.
I won’t bother refuting those points. But consider a couple political truths that suggest the surge could make the House safe for legislation:
- It is actually rare for a House incumbent to lose in a primary. Eric Cantor is the poster child Tea Party Victim, but he was the exception. Republican incumbents have nothing to fear but fear itself.
- There is no evidence that the radical “no-compromise” posture helps the party as a whole garner public approval or general election victories.
- The pandemonium in the GOP presidential race suggests that pandemonium amongst Republicans in Congress could further alienate the independent voters they need to win a presidential election and big state Senate elections. The success of the alleged outsider candidates (Trump, Carson and Fiorina) and the stagnation of the leading conventional pols (Bush, Rubio, et. al.) imply there is little GOP voters actually like about their elected officials, whose rallying cry has been “no compromise.”
- In the wake of Obama’s big win in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued a powerful report arguing that because of the soaring growth of non-whites, women and young people in the electorate — groups current hostile to Republicans — the party increasingly will be handicapped in presidential and big state elections without massive policy shifts. No faction in the GOP holds positions non-whites, women and young people dislike more than the House GOP tea party caucus. If the party doesn’t have a death wish, they better deal with that. Why not start now?
The House Surge is a perfectly reasonable and practical strategic option. If Republicans reject it, it will be a conscious choice, not some Hegelian historical inevitability.
Governing with compromise may not be the choice that would maximize the reelection prospects of the greatest number of GOP incumbents. But it could well be the optimal strategy for the next presidential election and the long-term health of the party.