The Glorious Debt Limit Struggle of 2014 ended with a whimper, but it accomplished something important: it showcased the true nature of what’s driving today’s GOP with a level of clarity that even those most determined to ignore can no longer avoid.

This has major implications for another looming challenge: immigration reform.

Some of us have long argued that today’s GOP is in a kind of “post-policy” phase, in which underlying structural factors have rendered it mostly incapable of entering into normal give-and-take governing with Democrats — even when GOP leaders and mainstream conservatives want accommodation with them. The incentives push the other way: population distribution patterns and gerrymandering have locked individual lawmakers away in deep red districts, insulated from national opinion, where primaries are their number one threat; absolute resistance to Obama ensures plaudits from the Conservative Entertainment Complex.

Today’s New York Times has a great piece by Carl Hulse that spells this out, albeit politely. He pinpoints the root of today’s dysfunction: many Republicans “hope Yes,” but “vote No.” They were constrained by incentives from voting for the debt limit hike, even though they knew it was right for the country and their party:

Most Republicans badly wanted the debt limit to be raised…They just did not want their fingerprints on it.
The implications for governing are obvious. If many lawmakers are unwilling or refuse to vote for legislation that they understand to be necessary, and even beneficial, out of fear of retribution from an empowered and outspoken wing of their party, reaching agreement on major policy like immigration becomes difficult if not impossible.
“The incentives are not aligned,” one House Republican acknowledged…Reinforcing the point about perverse incentives, House Republicans who managed to vote against a debt limit increase that they sincerely wanted to pass could be rewarded by avoiding a primary challenger fueled by the debt issue. They are also likely to earn higher ratings on conservative scorecards that severely penalize lawmakers who back a debt increase.

That’s it in a nutshell. The next place where it will come into play is immigration.

Hulse’s piece gets at the basic reality of the current situation in a way many have refused to reckon with. On many major issues, there is probably a majority consensus in Congress behind a solution. But at the same time, there are few if any solutions the Tea Party will support that can also be supported by Dems and signed into law by Obama. That’s because most accommodationist solutions — even ones that give mainstream conservatives some, but not all, of what they want — are unacceptable to the Tea Party by definition. Therefore, with many mainstream conservatives secretly willing to enter into such compromises, the only route to resolution is for GOP leaders to accept the need to cut the Tea Party loose and endure the consequences.

The real story of the debt limit resolution is that Dems came to accept those fundamentals, and readjusted accordingly, refusing to engage entirely in order to force Republican leaders to reckon with them on their own. The rest is history. What’s next?

The debt limit hike is a unique case, because it’s something that has to happen, and raising it doesn’t require concessions from either side. Immigration reform, by contrast, requires many difficult policy compromises. It is not a “must pass.” But there is a real route to a deal, if Republicans cut loose the right, and the notion that they have the luxury of waiting is an illusion. It will only get harder next year, and the price of inaction will only grow. The question is whether GOP leaders will decide that paying that price is worse than overcoming the “perverse incentives” Hulse spells out.


* ALEX SINK LEADS IN SPECIAL ELECTION: Via Taegan Goddard, a new Tampa Bay Times poll finds Dem Alex Sink ahead of GOPer David Jolly in the special election in Florida’s 13th District, 42-35, with the voters split on Obamacare. The outcome will be widely seen as a harbinger of the political environment this fall, but whatever happens, I’d caution against reading too much into the results.

What this shows is what we’ve long known: the electorate is polarized over the ACA, but it is not a wedge against Dems. Indeed, Sink is ahead even as she’s running ads defending the law and attacking the GOP repeal stance directly.

How the health law plays in this race will be interesting: Landrieu is aggressively going after Republicans over the Medicaid expansion, and on top of that, the Koch-backed group is entering the fight over it, ensuring it will be a big issue in Louisiana this spring.

* DEBT LIMIT FIASCO SHOWS WAY FORWARD ON IMMIGRATION: Related to my lead item above: E.J. Dionne draws exactly the right conclusion from the GOP debt limit cave:

This vote, like many before it, proved that there is a moderate governing majority in the House. It could work its will again and again if only Boehner were willing to put bills on the floor and give practical-minded Republicans a chance join with Democrats to enact them.
This proposition deserves a test on immigration reform. Supporters should be thinking about a discharge petition to force Boehner’s hand — or maybe even to allow him to do what he’s said privately he’d like to do. If a majority of House members signed it, there could be a successful vote for the immigration bill the Senate already passed.

And again, even without a discharge petition, there is a path to a deal that both sides of this “moderate governing majority” will accept, but it requires Boehner to allow action on the issue to move forward.

* ONLY TIME WILL TELL IF OBAMACARE WILL WORK: The New York Times overview of the new enrollment numbers contains this crucial nugget:

Industry experts and insurance officials say that the reality is murkier than either party wants to admit, and that the numbers at the heart of the national political debate are largely meaningless outside Washington’s overheated environment. The determination about whether the law works from an economic standpoint will not be clear for years, when individual insurance companies are finally able to tell whether their expectations about the health of their customers — and the premiums they set for coverage — were accurate.

Keep in mind that this is coming from people who have a tremendous stake in the law over the long term. Meanwhile, Republican claims the law has already failed are about creating a favorable political narrative for 2014, but also about actively dissuading signups in order to push it towards failure.

* DEMS WON’T TAKE BACK THE HOUSE: Political scientist Alan Abramowitz explains why:

Democrats would need a very substantial lead on the pre-election generic ballot surveys, something in the vicinity of 12 to 14 points, to have a good chance of gaining the 17 House seats needed to regain control of the chamber. At this point, that appears highly unlikely — no nonpartisan poll in the past year has shown a double-digit Democratic lead on the generic ballot. Moreover, no party holding the White House has gained anywhere near 17 seats in a midterm election in the past century. It seems highly unlikely that 2014 will see such a result. On the other hand, it also appears highly unlikely that Republicans will be able to significantly increase the size of their House majority in November. Right now, the most likely outcome of the House elections would appear to be a near standoff.

* INEQUALITY IS A LONG-TERM PROBLEM: Norman Ornstein has an interesting column warning that over time, the combination of inequality and the aging population could continue to erode demand, and with it, faith in American dream, undermining the viability of the entire system and potentially allowing more demagoguery to flourish. As Ornstein notes, conservatives and liberals used to agree that addressing such problems would require giving people money, a consensus that pretty much no longer exists.

* AND THE NEW NARRATIVE: Now John Boehner is being hailed as a “true leader” because he gave up the debt limit extortion routine. Never mind that he was instrumental in dragging us through years of debt ceiling chaos, and only gave it up because Democrats forced him to, by refusing to play the game.

What else?