First a bit of historical trivia. Many of the Founding Fathers actively loathed the idea of political parties or “factions.” But almost from the start, those same political leaders found that the jostling interests of the new Republic demanded some kind of organizing principle. A factionless state might be fine in theory. But to actively govern, to organize reasonably like-minded citizens into coherent movements, and establish clear lines of engagement on the big issues of the day, we needed relatively stable, recognizable and coherent parties.
I mention this context because it’s important to remember that almost from the start political parties have served as a clumsy but apparently necessary tool for channeling our idealism and our often conflicting visions of America into real-world platforms and workable policies. And it’s also clear that in these first decades of the 21st century, the Republican Party has lost much of its capacity to fulfill this most essential responsibility: converting passion and ideological zeal into something like a real capacity to govern.
The obvious case in point is the battle over funding for the Homeland Security department. A small faction of Republicans have insisted upon linking the DHS budget to the issue of illegal immigration. Rather than create some kind of legislation that would resolve the nation’s immigration woes, the GOP essentially took part of the government hostage. By the end of the week, the best that Republican leaders could muster was a bill extending Homeland Security’s budget by a meager seven days.
As North Country congresswoman Elise Stefanik put it, “a one week extension is not the way to run our government.” Indeed, much of the commentary on the DHS-funding fiasco has centered on the political blunder it represents and the circular firing squad sensibility that colors so much of the Republican Party’s internal politics. But it’s more important, I think, to grapple with the challenges that emerge when one of our two major governing parties has ceased to show any kind of ability to actually use government as a tool at the national level.
Gridlock within the GOP
Consider the state of play of healthcare. Republicans have known for more than half a decade that the Affordable Care Act was anathema to their world-view. Which is perfectly fine. They may be right that there were better ways to improve and extend access to healthcare for more Americans. But the GOP has made no meaningful effort to come up with a workable alternative. The party is so weak in its capacity to marshal itself for collective action, that it’s doubtful that the various rivaling factions could rally behind any one plan.
That very thing happened with immigration reform. Republicans in the Senate achieved a compromise bill, working with Democrats and the White House, only to see their work scuttled by a clique of GOP conservatives in the House.
Put bluntly, a big part of what political parties do is help find the center, while relegating “back benchers” and party radicals to, well, the back benches. This still happens regularly with the Democrats. Liberal firebrands influence policy and their voices are heard. But at the end of the day, the Democratic Party rallies around centrist legislation, often including a wide range of conservative and Republican ideas.
Republicans used to do the same. From Richard Nixon’s move to create the Environmental Protection Agency to George H. W. Bush’s support for the Americans With Disabilities Act and his ban on the importation of assault rifles, there is a long history of GOP compromise and governance. But the anti-government rhetoric has gone so far within the GOP that it’s far safer politically for members of the national party to talk about secession than about compromise.
When secession is okay but compromise is a sin…
Just last month, libertarian favorite Ron Paul gave a speech where he once again called for “nullification, the breaking up of government, and the good news is it’s gonna happen. It’s happening.” That kind of blunt, scorched-earth view of the practicalities of government, from one of the GOP’s most influential faction leaders, drew no critical response, no backlash. Yet when Mitch McConnell brought forward a bill that would keep DHS funded through September, a critic accused him of “capitulation.”
It’s important to remember, as we score the Republican Party’s efforts to lead Congress — with dominant majorities now in both chambers — how this is supposed to work. Both sides, Democrats and Republicans, are supposed to offer up the things they want. Then they horse-trade, finding out exactly which priorities and principles are essential and which are battles that can be fought another day. That’s how two-party governance works. You win a little, you lose a little.
From immigration to healthcare reform to the Keystone XL pipeline, the GOP should make demands and fight for them, but also be ready to listen to the other side and make concessions and give Democrats and the White House something worth swapping for. On the pipeline project, for example, why not trade approval of Keystone XL for a huge new national investment in renewable energy? Why not link changes to unpopular and broken parts of the Affordable Care Act with an agreement to help bolster and improve parts of the law that work?
But at this point, that kind of productive realpolitik seems all but inconceivable for the Party of Lincoln. The idea that all sides would sit down and hash out a sane, complex and dissatisfying-for-all-parties immigration reform package seems as remote as the conservative utopian Ayn Randian vision that so many Republicans seem to think is right around the corner. Indeed, it’s unclear whether Republicans, after years in the opposition, still have the kind of old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts legislators — men like Denny Hastert and Newt Gingrich — who could bridge the worlds of ideology and active governance.
A House of Representatives divided against itself
The truth is that these days the Republican Party’s various factions loathe one-another. At CPAC, the conservative conference held this week, speakers heaped scorn on President Obama, but they also savaged one-another, expressing a kind of visceral disdain. Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — has been abandoned by the tribal leaders of the modern party. And many conservative Republicans are convinced that Democrats and the people who elect them are un-American, enemies of the Republic, miscreants and traitors not to be trusted. They live within an ideology where the American government itself is viewed as a hostile, occupying force, where a citizen buys a handgun or an assault rifle not just for sport or personal protection, but as an expression of armed political resistance.
That all worked fine so long as Democrats were the party in power and Republicans could revel in the role of political bomb-throwers and evangelical speech-makers. But now that the GOP holds defining power in Washington, this stridently anti-government mindset is being tested against reality. So far, the results for all Americans haven’t been pretty.