Is the Republican Party Obama’s fault?

January 18, 2013

The first day of the House Republicans' retreat was devoted, in large part, to persuading House Republicans to stop saying offensive things about rape and to stop thinking they can use the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage after losing the 2012 election.

Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.com
Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.com

To state the obvious, these are not topics that should actually need to be covered at a retreat of House Republicans. We should be able to take it for granted that our legislators won't petulantly crash the economy or offend rape survivors. That the House GOP leadership had to mount an organized campaign to convince GOP members of those things is evidence that something has gone wrong in the Republican Party.

No one knows that better than Republicans themselves. But it's very difficult to be a Republican in a time of GOP dissolution. And so recent weeks have birthed the strangest strain of commentary I can remember: The Republican Party's crazy opinions are President Obama's fault.

The logic here is weirdly impeccable. The Republican Party's dilemma is that House Republicans keeps taking all kinds of unreasonable and unpopular positions. If Obama weren't president, the House Republicans wouldn't be taking so many unreasonable and unpopular positions. But since Obama is president, and since he does need to work with House Republicans, he is highlighting their unreasonable and unpopular opinions in a bid to make them change their minds, which is making House Republicans look even worse. And so it's ultimately Obama's fault that House Republicans are, say, threatening to breach the debt ceiling if they don't get their way on spending cuts. After all, if Mitt Romney had won the election, the debt ceiling wouldn't even be a question!

My colleague Michael Gerson wrote one of the earliest versions of this column. As he put it, Obama "knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue." So he has, in a bid to "break his opponents," decided to "force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return" and to "require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions."

So the White House's plan, then, is to force Republicans to be unreasonable by being reasonable and taking the positions Obama has espoused all along, including in the 2012 campaign. Gerson argues that this is a devious win-win for the president: "If [Republicans] agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), [Obama can] paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation’s credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes."

Another version came today from New York Times columnist David Brooks. The column takes the form of Brooks imagining the internal monologue of a White House strategist who's developing a strategy to destroy the Republican Party. It's worth quoting at some length:

"The president should propose no new measures that might unite Republicans, the way health care did in the first term. Instead, he should raise a series of wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.

“He’s already started with a perfectly designed gun control package, inviting a long battle with the N.R.A. over background checks and magazine clips. That will divide the gun lobby from suburbanites. Then he can re-introduce Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. That will divide the anti-immigration groups from the business groups (conventional wisdom underestimates how hard it is going to be for Republicans to back comprehensive reforms).

“Then he could invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling — make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. Along the way, he could highlight women’s issues, social mobility issues (student loans, community college funding) and pick fights on compassion issues, (hurricane relief) — promoting any small, popular spending programs that Republicans will oppose.

“Twice a month, Democrats should force Republicans to cast an awful vote: either offend mainstream supporters or risk a primary challenge from the right.”

So White House officials' devious plan to destroy the Republican Party, in Brooks's view, is that they will propose more moderate, popular policies than they did in their first term, thus making Republicans look terrible when they vote against everything.

There's an Occam's Razor problem with all these columns: Perhaps the White House is hewing to the popular, reasonable positions it took in the 2012 campaign because, well, those are its positions. If the Republican Party can't either agree to them or come up with popular, reasonable positions of its own, the problem here might be located inside the Republican Party rather than at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The good news is that the grown-ups in the Republican Party are trying. This week's retreat seems mostly about the House Republican leadership talking their members down from the ledge,as unnecessary as that particular project should be. Rep. Paul Ryan is interceding in a strange, but mostly helpful, way in arguing that Republicans should see the debt limit as a moment for messaging rather than extortion. Charles Krauthammer is warning, "if you try to govern from one house — e.g., force spending cuts with cliffhanging brinkmanship — you lose. You not only don’t get the cuts. You get the blame for rattled markets and economic uncertainty. You get humiliated by having to cave in the end. And you get opinion polls ranking you below head lice and colonoscopies in popularity." A lot of Republicans from all different sectors of the party are signaling that the GOP would be wise to stay away from the debt ceiling.

In the end, the Republican Party is going to need to fix itself, and that's going to require a painful process in which more sensible voices stand up to the more extreme elements of the coalition. It is getting very far into cult-of-the-presidency thinking to say the solution instead lies in the relatively fixed policy proposals of a Democratic executive.

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Dylan Matthews | January 18, 2013