Ron Brownstein has a very good piece making a point that many Beltway commentators just refuse to acknowledge: The Republican Party is the primary cause of gridlock and dyfsunction in Washington today. Crucially, Brownstein notes that a key cause of this asymmetry is that underlying structural factors are pushing the GOP into the role of ideological outlier.
But I think Brownstein misses a key part of the story, which is that some of the polling evidence suggests that GOP leaders are continually shaping policy and rhetoric around the priorities and preoccupations of their most ideologically extreme voters, and this is making the asymmetry far worse. Here’s the crux of Brownstein’s argument:
The biggest reason Washington doesn’t work is not too little integrity but too much rigidity. The principal role of the political system — the value it adds to the American life — is mediating the perpetual differences in our very diverse society. But Washington has almost entirely lost its ability to fulfill that function because the most powerful incentives now encourage elected officials to prioritize ideological consistency over pragmatic compromise.
Though Republicans rail at the assertion, the evidence is that this tendency is not evenly distributed in both parties. Because Republicans are operating with a more homogenous electoral coalition than Democrats, GOP officials face more centrifugal pressure to embrace purist and uncompromising positions. The escalating blockade of Republican resistance to Obama’s initiatives — symbolized by mounting conservative demands to shut down the government to defund his health care law — increasingly resembles a kind of sit-down strike by nonurban white America against the racially diverse, urbanized electoral majority that twice elected the president.
Obama has shown somewhat more willingness to incorporate Republican concerns into his agenda (for instance by pursuing a budget deal that would both restrain entitlements and raise taxes). Yet the Democratic coalition that he leads is also growing more ideologically unified. And as demographic change enlarges that coalition behind him, Obama has shown less interest (or intuitive talent) than Bill Clinton in trying to reach voters and regions beyond his comfort zone…Both parties appear increasingly inclined to accept the red-blue landscape as an immovable, and impassable, divide.
The additional factor here, at risk of overgeneralizing about public opinion, is that there’s reason to believe that the “escalating bloc of Republican resistance to Obama’s initiatives” Brownstein describes really reflects only what a portion of Republican voters want.
* On how to reduce the deficit and resolve our fiscal impasse, perhaps the central point of contention from which most of the current dysfunction flows, a Post/ABC News poll from December found that 49 percent of Republicans wants the deficit reduced through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes (the compromise position favored by Obama and Dems), while 48 percent of Republicans wants it reduced only through spending cuts (the GOP position). But the GOP is locked into the latter position.
* On immigration, another main looming policy fight this fall, polls that ask directly whether respondents favor a path to citizenship or not find a majority of Republicans opposes the idea. But polls from Quinnipiac and National Journal, which ask whether respondents favor citizenship as part of a broader package of reforms including beefed up border security and/or strict conditions attached — the actual policy choice on the table — find a solid majority of Republicans are supportive. There is reason to believe GOP opinion is more nuanced than the conventional wisdom suggests.
* On Obamacare — the target of the GOP base’s most intense fear and loathing — the picture is admittedly different. Big majorities of Republicans favor repeal. However, no poll that I’m aware of has asked whether Republicans favor a government shutdown to force defunding of the law, a position GOP leaders have refused to publicly rule out (probably yet another sign they are not willing to buck their more extreme voters).
The caveat you usually hear is that the more extreme positions on these issues tend to be held with more intensity. But that’s exactly the point: The GOP postures on major issues is being shaped by the extreme and intensely held preoccupations. As Mike Tomasky put it recently, moderate Republican views, such as they are, have no serious representation in Congress.
Brownstein notes that Obama has not been as successful as Bill Clinton in reaching outside his “comfort zone,” which is to say he has not been as successful in peeling off moderate Republicans to break the impasses gripping Washington. (Obama is trying to accomplish this, wooing individual GOP Senators who appear open to dealing with him.) But it’s hard to see how that can work, as long as the GOP leadership and virtually all of the party’s elected officials remain in thrall to the preoccupations of the more ideologically extreme portions of the GOP base and their representatives in Congress. Until this basic dynamic changes, the asymmetry Brownstein describes will probably continue to keep us locked in stalemate.