In the past 18 months, attempts to address the country’s uncertain financial future in some grand way have failed twice: first in the summer of 2011, when discussions between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the debt ceiling collapsed amid anger and finger-pointing, and then last month, when discussions between Obama and Boehner collapsed amid anger and finger-pointing.
Those failures have set up what amounts to the granddaddy of them all in late February and early March, when three things will happen: The debt ceiling will (again) need to be raised, the government will run out of money and need to be re-funded, and the package of automatic across-the-board cuts in military and domestic spending — a.k.a. sequestration — will kick in.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that the idea that the government can, will — or even wants to — rise to the occasion (as Boehner and Obama have advocated in recent days) is a total fallacy.
Consider, aside from the failure of the two most recent tries to cut a grand bargain, the following facts:
● Of the 234 House Republicans elected Nov. 6, only 39 — or 17 percent — won with 55 percent of the vote or less, the traditional benchmark for vulnerability in future general elections. Of that same group, only 15 of the 234 — 6 percent — represent districts that Obama won in the 2012 election. (Ninety-six percent of Democrats represent districts Obama won.) Those numbers make a clear political case that the only danger for most GOP members of the House is in a primary, not a general election. And the best way to avoid a primary is to hold the ideological line on anything and everything. Compromise with Democrats is the quickest and best way to shorten a career. The best example of that new political reality? The fact that Boehner couldn’t even get his plan that would have raised taxes on those making $1 million and more to the floor of the House late last month.
● Polarization in the country is at an all-time high. In Pew polling conducted since 1987 that tests Democrats and Republicans on four dozen values questions, there is an 18-point gap in how the two sides respond — the largest ever measured. That includes a 41 percent difference in how Democrats and Republicans view the “social safety net” (it was a 23-point margin in 1987) and a 39 percent chasm on the environment. The vast majority of the increased polarization has come in the past decade, during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. According to the Pew study: “Both parties have become smaller and more ideologically homogeneous. . . . [The] values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.”
● Republicans lack a clear — or even fuzzy — leader. Democrats may have celebrated the collapse of Boehner’s bargaining power in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, but, in truth, a powerless (or at least less-powerful) Boehner is a bad thing for a grand bargain down the line. While Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stepped into the void left by Boehner to cut a deal with the White House, it’s important to remember that McConnell represents the Senate minority while Boehner represents the House majority. Any grand bargain will have to make it through the House, and it’s hard to see Boehner doing that unless a large number (a majority?) of his members are supportive of it. And it’s not clear that Boehner can ensure that they could (or will) be. The rest of the Republican Party leadership roster — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — all seem to be holding off at the moment, keeping an eye on how it all plays out before weighing in politically. That means there’s no person on Obama’s political level he can negotiate with. That’s a major problem for deal lovers.
All signs point to the fact that if the grand bargain isn’t dead, it’s darn close. Miraculous comebacks happen in politics, which makes it worth watching, but they are the exception, not the rule. Given that, it may be time to accept that the idea of Washington doing big things in a bipartisan way is a thing of the past — perhaps never to be recovered.