The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This one anecdote perfectly explains today’s GOP

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza serves up a very fine piece of reporting today that sheds new light on how the GOP-controlled House has only grown more dysfunctional even as the GOP has expanded its majority.

The conclusion that follows inescapably from Lizza’s reporting is a familiar one. It is that all the dysfunction has been caused less by a roughly equivalent failure by both major parties to make the incremental concessions needed to reach common ground, and more by a searing intra-GOP argument over whether the Republican Party should make such concessions to reach the common ground that has always been sitting right there in plain sight.

The piece recounts how Republicans, egged on by the House GOP’s conservative wing, badly miscalculated that they could force Obama and Dems to make spectacular concessions by holding firm after the government shut down in 2013. That’s familiar ground.

But I wanted to flag a particular anecdote from the story that reveals the underlying dynamic rendering the GOP intransigent with an uncommon level of clarity. Lizza chats with GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, a very influential House conservative, who defends the soundness of the shutdown strategy and blames others for failing to execute it properly:

Unlike many Republicans, Labrador did not see the shutdown as a permanent stain on the Party. He grabbed one of two large poster-board polling charts leaning against his desk; it was titled “Before /After 2013 Shutdown” and showed the Republican Party’s approval ratings quickly recovering. “Within a couple of months, people forgot what happened,” he said. “So our favorables went back up, and our unfavorables went back down.”…
Labrador then pointed to another chart, which showed that the G.O.P.’s favorable ratings this year dropped from forty-one per cent, in January, to thirty-two per cent, in July. “This is what happens when we do nothing,” he said. “This is the new G.O.P. majority in 2015, when we stand for nothing.” The problem, in his view, was that the Party was “governing,” he said, adding air quotes to the word. “If people just want to ‘govern,’ which means bringing more government, they’re always going to choose the Democrat.”

That is a remarkable theory of the case: Republicans lose ground when they govern along with Democrats, because achieving bipartisan governing compromise inherently represents capitulation to Dems, in the sense that when government functions, it affirms the Dem vision.

Now, in one way, there’s something to this. As Thomas Schaller explains, having government not do anything is at times an openly held Republican objective, and in this sense, a system in which change is very hard to achieve, such as ours, gives Republicans a built in structural advantage. Boehner himself has said that the way to judge Republicans is not by “how many new laws we create,” but by “how many laws that we repeal.” Thus, for Republicans, if a Democrat is in the White House, the system is working if it thwarts that Democrat’s agenda.

But Labrador here takes this a step further. Boehner would like to repeal the Obama agenda, but that doesn’t mean he never wants Republicans to participate in governing. Thus, after finding that protracted crises didn’t achieve that repeal objective, Boehner, on his way out, presided over a big deal designed to vastly minimize the possibility that short-term crises (over the debt limit and/or government funding levels) would damage the country (and of course the GOP, too). New Speaker Paul Ryan seems similarly committed to avoiding such crises.

But Labrador rejects this approach for two reasons. First, because it is an article of faith that shutdowns won’t hurt the GOP: the party shut down the government in 2013, and that was followed by the Great and Glorious 2014 victory! Of course, this proves nothing about what would happen if there were a shutdown now, since 2014 unfolded amid a shriveled midterm electorate, and next year’s elections will take place amid a presidential year one. And second, because compromising in certain areas, rather than employing maximal intransigence, in hopes that adhering to it in a determined enough fashion will eventually force Dem capitulation, itself constitutes a failure to sufficiently “stand” for something.

This belief, that all that’s needed to force Dem capitulation is sufficient resolve, is deeply flawed. It’s premised on a failure to understand that for Democrats, the incentives — having favored Republicans in 2011 — are now all aligned against any Dem capitulation in such a crisis, no matter how protracted and destructive it might prove. But Labrador, speaking to Lizza, offered an answer to this, too:

The innovation that Labrador and his colleagues brought to the Republican conference was a willingness to use tactics that Boehner and his allies saw as beyond the pale. “We don’t want a shutdown, we don’t want a default on the debt, but when the other side knows that you’re unwilling to do it you will always lose,” Labrador said. In his view, Boehner dangerously misunderstood Obama and had an outdated view of political combat in Washington. “You have somebody in the White House who plays hardball,” Labrador said. “He wants to fundamentally change America. And when you have a guy whose only job is to ‘govern,’ and doesn’t realize that the other guy is trying to fundamentally change America, you just don’t have an even match.”

In other words, the Obama agenda’s transformation of the country represents such an urgent threat that, even if he will play hardball to protect it, responding with maximal confrontation is the only available principled stand for Republicans — no matter what the consequences end up being.

Thus, Labrador, to his credit, has forthrightly revealed that conservatives themselves don’t view these stalemates as resolvable through conventional negotiation, in which each side makes incremental concessions in an effort to meet somewhere in the middle. Such conventional negotiation is the whole problem! The other day Charlie Rose asked Hillary Clinton the big question — how will you work with today’s GOP? Clinton observed that one key obstacle is that the GOP’s right flank isn’t interested in compromise, prompting Rose to chastise this as an “attack” on the GOP. But as Steve Benen notes, Clinton was merely observing an obvious reality. The most determined both-sides-to-blame pundits will naturally be unmoved, but Labrador himself has now usefully confirmed this.