For the third time in less than 20 years, congressional Republicans are bringing the nation’s government to a halt in an attempt to reverse the outcome of national elections. The first instance was Republicans’ shutdown of the government in 1995-96 (which, actually, was two shutdowns in rapid succession). The second was their impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Today, we’re slogging through the third — yet another shutdown.
Each instance had its proximate causes. In 1995, the GOP-controlled Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, refused to fund the government after Clinton rejected its spending cuts to Medicare benefits and Republicans failed to muster the votes to override his vetoes. In 1998, the House, led by then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay, impeached Clinton for having sex with an intern but denying it to a special prosecutor (whose charge, uncovering Clinton’s alleged business scandals, had turned up nothing). This week, Republicans have shuttered the government to pressure President Obama to stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Repealing the health-care law would require either a Republican president or veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate, but Republicans failed to elect any one of these in 2012.
The punishment the GOP metes out never really fits the “crime” Republicans insist has compelled them to act. In rejecting the Republicans’ proposed Medicare cuts in 1995-96, Clinton was simply reasserting what had been national policy for 30 years. Republicans never convinced most ordinary Americans, much less constitutional scholars, that Clinton’s sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and his denial of same, amounted to the high crimes and misdemeanors that the Founders said were grounds for impeachment. And it’s absurd to argue that Obamacare — modeled after a right-wing think tank’s proposal for a health-insurance program that left the private health-insurance industry intact — is a socialist threat to the American way of life. If Republicans truly believe that Obama must be forced to undo the socialization of medical insurance, they would demand the repeal of Medicare, not Obamacare.
So, what’s really going on? What’s behind this two-decade drive to employ the obstructive power of a governmental minority to undo the policies that a majority enacted or to unseat an elected president? Plainly, the gap between the Republican Party and the rest of the nation has widened. And as that gap has grown, Republicans have become more insular and more desperate — a toxic combination for a functioning democracy.
The Republicans who swept to power in 1994 were the first House and Senate delegations that reflected the party’s new center of power in the white South. For the first time in Republican history, most of the party’s top legislative leaders came from former Confederate states , where resistance to minority and worker rights was an established tradition. Even today, this resistance remains key to the GOP’s hold on power; the voter-suppression efforts in Republican-controlled Southern states make this clear.
Since 1995, the demographic and cultural changes transforming this nation have deepened the Republicans’ marginality. The growth of Latino and Asian populations — both groups increasingly trend Democratic — has relentlessly reduced the white share of the electorate, on which Republicans have come to rely almost exclusively. The only presidential election in which the GOP nominee has won a plurality of the popular vote since then was George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. The current Republican hold on the House is the product of the lily-white, gerrymandered districts that GOP legislators crafted after the 2010 Census; in 2012, House Democrats won nearly 1.4 million more popular votes than House Republicans.
All this leaves only two ways that Republicans can affect public policy at the national level: They can embrace minority rights (through, say, immigration reform) and accept a legitimate role for government in the nation’s economic affairs (which, polls show, millennials strongly support) — that is, they can move to the center. Or they can try to maximize the power of their minority status by trying to disrupt the nation to the point that the majority will be compelled to support Republican positions.
Rationality dictates the first choice, but rationality doesn’t hold much sway in today’s GOP. Insularity is largely to blame. Right-wing media fuel support for Republican lawmakers’ most obstructionist tendencies. And Republicans in safely GOP districts don’t have to concern themselves with voters who may blanch at their radicalism.
Is this course sustainable? Ultimately, no. Eventually, the number of millennials, voters of color and fed-up moderates will rise to the point that 218 sufficiently white and conservative House districts can no longer be crafted. How much havoc Republicans can wreak until then, however, is anybody’s guess.