There are two phrases that have been on everyone’s lips in Washington since Tuesday night. Republicans now need to “show they can govern,” because everyone wants to “get things done.” Republican leaders, the New York Times tells us, are eager to “demonstrate that they can get things done.” President Obama has expressed optimism that GOP leaders want to “find some common ground,” adding that “we want to get things done.” Vice President Joe Biden opined that Republicans are “going to choose to get things done.” One winning candidate after another repeated the mantra: now we can really start getting things done.
Let me go out on a limb here and say that Mitch McConnell is not hoping to create a sparkling new era of bipartisan cooperation. He knows that the things he and his colleagues would really like to do are impossible so long as there’s a Democratic president with a veto pen. That means what he does in the next two years is all about making it more likely that 2016 sees the GOP hold on to its majority in the Senate (the House is almost a given) and a Republican wins the White House.
Control of both houses doesn’t mean Republicans have to show they can govern. It means they have new ways at their disposal to get credit for trying to govern, even if they know they won’t actually get much done, which, as it happens, is an outcome they may not mind that much.
Yesterday the conservative National Review published an editorial on what they called the “governing trap.” Republicans, they counseled, shouldn’t even bother trying to govern in the next two years. Instead, they should continue to obstruct President Obama and lay out an agenda they can run on in 2016, because “not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism’s main political goal over the next two years.”
While it may be unusually forthright, this isn’t bad advice, politically speaking. After all, following the path of obstruction instead of governing has worked out pretty darn well for Republicans over the last six years. When Barack Obama took office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress; now Republicans do.
Still, now that they have both houses of Congress, they have to adapt to a new atmosphere in which they’ll be judged more directly on whether they do actually govern and get stuff done. To that end, Boehner and McConnell published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying, “The skeptics say nothing will be accomplished in the next two years. As elected servants of the people, we will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong.”
The Republicans now face a few different audiences when they consider what, and how much, they should “get done.” They have to please their base, they have to avoid alienating the broader electorate, and they have to present a story to the media that explains why they’re not the problem in Washington.
Fortunately for them, there’s a clear path to doing all these things, at least most of the time. First, they have to avoid the big showdowns that garner lots of attention and paint Republicans as radicals threatening the country’s well-being if they don’t get their way. That means that when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling or pass a budget to keep the government open, they’ll do it, as quietly as possible to avoid a backlash from the base. Second, they have to pass bills, and bills that have at least a surface plausibility to them, even if they know full well the bills will be vetoed by President Obama. That means not a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but a bill to, say, repeal the employer mandate.
When those kinds of bills get filibustered by Senate Democrats or vetoed by President Obama, Republicans will say, “See, we’ve shown we can govern. President Obama is the one preventing things from getting done.” The ability to actually pass bills through both houses, no matter how unrealistic and doomed from the start, will allow McConnell and Boehner to weave a new narrative in which President Obama is the obstructionist. And I’m guessing the press will buy it. Going through the process of legislation will be enough to persuade the media that they are making a good faith effort to govern, even if they never make any meaningful compromises.
In short, the fundamental gridlock will remain, and Republicans will say that the way to end it once and for all is to keep them in power in Congress but also give them the White House, too.