Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer July 5, 2011

To watch Republicans in action today, in Washington and in legislatures around the country, is to be reminded of Casey Stengel’s amazed query to the 1962 Mets, whom he had the cosmic misfortune to manage: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

In California, in Minnesota and here on Capitol Hill, Republican legislators in divided governments seem incapable of taking half or even three-fourths of a loaf — of recognizing when they’ve won. By holding out for more when they’ve already attained plenty, they run the risk of coming away with nothing for themselves or inflicting avoidable calamity on everyone else. As Daniel Bell once said of American socialists, they act as if they’re in but not of the world.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

In California, for instance, where Republicans hold just over a third of the seats in each legislative house — enough to block any tax increase, which requires two-thirds support — Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters on June 16 that he was willing to submit to voters proposals to reduce both state pensions and business regulations if Republican lawmakers agreed to let voters also decide whether to extend some tax increases. Brown’s goal was to avoid having to cut more deeply into spending on schools, universities and medical care. California businesses, which have complained of overregulation for decades, were hot for the deal, but the Republicans refused to budge. In consequence, in the state budget passed last week, without the tax extensions, the state’s public universities will have to raise tuition roughly 10 percent (on top of another 10 percent increase that will take effect in September); and the poor will pay more for medical care. Pensions and regulations will remain unrevised.

What makes the California Republicans’ intransigence so loony — “idiotic” is, I think, not too strong a term — is that they are likely to lose legislative seats as soon as next year as a result of redistricting, and they are sure to lose legislative seats over the next decade because of their ongoing estrangement of the state’s Latino voters. When Republicans drop beneath one-third representation in the statehouse, Democrats will be able to raise taxes without their support. In other words, this may well have been Republicans’ last chance to extract concessions they considered vital. And they blew it off.

What we have here is an extreme world view — let’s call it Norquistism — that ensures impasse, paralysis or perverse outcomes whenever control of government is divided. It’s the doctrine preached by GOP activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist, who trots around the country collecting pledges from GOP candidates and elected officials that commit them to never, ever raise taxes, no matter what they may be offered in return. In Minnesota, a state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton sought to raise taxes on only the relative handful of Minnesotans with annual incomes in excess of $1 million. The legislature opposed that, insisting on cuts (including to services for those with disabilities) that Dayton wouldn’t countenance. Absent a budget, most state services in Minnesota closed down on July 1; it’s not clear when, or how, some compromise can be reached to reopen the state.

In the nation’s capital, Republicans also seem to have lost their capacity for compromise — even when that compromise looks to be a GOP victory. Senate Republicans, for instance, have been urging President Obama since before he took office to finalize three trade accords — with South Korea, Colombia and Panama — and bring them before Congress. Obama has now done so, asking in return only that Republicans approve the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that aids workers who lose their jobs as a result of these kinds of trade deals. But Republicans are balking — boycotting last week’s meeting of the Senate Finance Committee at which these treaties were to be taken up — because they don’t like TAA. This is hardly a major program, mind you, but the GOP’s loathing of any program that provides government assistance to workers (who really shouldn’t need any assistance, as free trade is good for us all) has eclipsed its long-term commitment to American corporate priorities.

When zeal runs amok, the sense of proportion suffers. Today’s Republicans remind me of some leaders of the American Communist Party whom I got to know decades ago, after they’d left the fold. “We believed in the party line, in its infallibility, so completely,” one ex-commie told me, “that we’d forget the larger strategy for the momentary tactic.” So it was with Communists of yore; so it is with Republicans today.

meyersonh@washpost.com