The United States faces a crisis in our political system because the Republican Party, particularly in the House of Representatives, is no longer a normal, governing party.
The only way we will avoid a constitutional crackup is for a new, bipartisan majority to take effective control of the House and isolate those who would rather see the country fall into chaos than vote for anything that might offend their ideological sensibilities.
In a democratic system with separated powers, two houses of Congress, split between the parties, a normal party accepts that compromise is the only way to legislate. A normal party takes into account election results. A normal party recognizes when the other side has made real concessions. A normal party takes responsibility.
By all of these measures, the Republican majority that Speaker John Boehner purports to lead is abnormal. That is the meaning of his catastrophic failure to gather the votes for his “Plan B” proposal on the “fiscal cliff.” Many of his most radical members believe they have a right to use any means at their disposal to impose their views on the country, even if they are only a minority in Congress.
There may, however, be good news in the disarray: The right wing of the Republican House has chosen to marginalize itself from any serious negotiations. The one available majority for action, especially on budgets, is a coalition uniting most Democrats with those Republicans who still hold the old-fashioned view that they were elected to help run the country.
To avert a fiscal nightmare in the short run, this potential majority needs to be allowed to work its will. The result may well be a modestly more progressive solution than President Obama offered Boehner, a deal with somewhat fewer cuts and more revenue. That’s the price the right wing will have to pay for refusing to govern.
This is almost exactly what happened in 1990, when the most conservative Republicans rejected a deficit-reduction agreement negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and Democrats in Congress. After a conservative rebellion brought the initial bill down, a more progressive measure was enacted with more Democratic votes.
In the longer run, the non-tea party wing of the GOP will have to decide whether it wants to be subject to the whims of colleagues to their right or look to the center for alliances with the Democrats. The choice is plain: We can spend two years doing absolutely nothing, or we can try to solve the country’s problems. This includes the problem of gun violence, and the question is whether the GOP will reject the tone-deaf extremism of NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s bizarre response to the killings in Newtown, Conn.
Our political structure has been disfigured in another way: In November’s election, Democrats failed to win the House even though they received about a million more votes in House contests than the Republicans did. Republicans were protected by gerrymandered districts and by political geography: Democrats tend to win urban and certain suburban districts by overwhelming margins.
In Pennsylvania, to pick a stark case, Democrats edged out the Republicans in the popular vote for House races. But given how the districts were drawn, this resulted in the Republicans winning 13 seats to only five for the Democrats.
Both parties gerrymander, of course, but Republicans had far more influence over the process this time because the 2010 election gave them dominance of so many legislatures. Thus did one election shape our politics for a decade, even though the country changed its mind one election later.
This unfortunate moment is a vindication of those like my colleagues Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who have been arguing that today’s Republicans are fundamentally different from their forebears. In their appropriately named book, “It’s Even Worse than It Looks,” Mann and Ornstein called the current GOP “an insurgent outlier in American politics,” and described the party this way: “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise . . . and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Their words are a rather precise description of why Boehner was unable to deliver a majority of his party to his budget bill.
It’s true that Boehner miscalculated, foolishly asking Republicans to vote for a symbolic tax increase that had no chance of becoming law. And the speaker fed the fires of rebellion with repeated false claims that Obama had made no meaningful concession when the president had, in fact, annoyed his base by making rather big ones.
But now, at least, we know something important: The current Republican majority in the House cannot govern. Only a coalition across party lines can get the public’s business done.