From the perspective of November 7, the day after the election, change looked promising. Barack Obama won a second term with a clear majority and, in the process, became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win both election and reelection with 51 percent of the vote or more. Republicans lost a net of two seats in the Senate, after going into the campaign confident that they could gain several seats, even enough to recapture the Senate majority. Democrats gained seats in the House while falling seventeen short of taking back the majority, but did win the popular vote—the aggregated national votes cast for House elections—by 1.4 million votes. And there were some early signs in its aftermath that the dynamic might have shifted, especially from some of Speaker John Boehner’s comments on November 7:
But the same day, Mitch McConnell offered words that were more mean-spirited than generous:
The dueling postelection statements indicated to some degree the conflicting and swirling views among national Republicans—an understanding that the party had been thumped in the election and needed to rethink its approach to voters and policy if it were to avoid being marginalized in presidential elections, but a continuing view among many lawmakers and others, including major funders, that the heart of the party was on the bedrock right.
The deep dysfunction that has gripped our political system for the past several years has not disappeared. If anything, it is even more pronounced in the House of Representatives and in many states. Lizza noted in his March 2013 New Yorker profile of Cantor: “House Republicans as a group are farther to the right than they have ever been. The overwhelming majority still fear a primary challenge from a more conservative rival more than a general-election campaign against a Democrat. They may hope that the Party’s national brand improves enough to help win the White House in 2016, but there is little incentive for the average member of the House to moderate his image.”
However sincere Boehner’s professions of desire for conciliation, the Lizza description of the House Republican majority dominated the policy and political dynamic in the weeks following the election, as Congress and the president grappled with the looming “fiscal cliff”—the expiration on December 31, 2012, of all the Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003, of the payroll tax cut and other Obama-sponsored tax reductions to stimulate a tepid recovery, and of a series of tax extenders including the research and development credit, along with the first wave of across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, enacted as part of the last-minute deal in 2011 to avert the breach in the debt ceiling.
The resolution of the fiscal cliff showed both that dysfunction continued to be dangerously high and that any successes in policy making through at least the remainder of the 113th Congress would come via the route of bipartisan supermajorities in the Senate (with a half dozen or more Republicans joining almost all of the Democrats) forcing the hand of the more partisan and reluctant House. After initial postelection discussions between Republican congressional leaders and the White House, Speaker Boehner came up with an alternative plan to resolve the problem, which he called “Plan B.” Boehner understood that the president had the high ground in negotiations over tax increases, since a failure to act would automatically produce massive increases (after which Obama would be able to propose a massive tax cut for all those making under $250,000). As his counter to the White House’s proposal to raise taxes on those earning over $250,000, Boehner suggested increases on those making over $1 million.
It was clear that with Plan B, Boehner sought to give House Republicans some traction in negotiations with the White House, knowing that there would be some tax increase, but trying to raise it as much as possible above the president’s threshold of $250,000 in income. But there was the small problem of the more radical members of his own team. A full court press by Boehner and his leadership team to get his House conference behind the plan failed; despite confident assurances by Majority Leader Cantor that the votes would be there, the Speaker, in a humiliating public fashion, had to abandon the plan on the evening of December 20 before bringing it to the floor, as he had planned, the next day. Boehner then withdrew from any negotiations as the clock ticked toward the deadline. It took late discussions between Vice President Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to come up with a compromise, which included leaving in place the increase in taxes for those making over $400,000, delaying the sequester for two months, and raising the debt limit sufficient to meet the government’s borrowing needs until roughly mid-2013. For McConnell, now that he had failed to achieve his number-one goal of making Obama a one-term president, there were reasons to compromise with the White House, including both the hard reality that a failure to deal would result in a massive tax increase which the president could then turn into a call for a new tax cut, and that any damage done in the short run to the fragile economy would likely be blamed on the Republicans who had lost the election.
The Biden-McConnell compromise quickly passed the Senate with eighty-nine votes, including support from some of the most conservative Republicans, such as Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey. But it soon became clear that House Republicans were unmoved either by the imprimatur from those iconic conservatives or the wave of Republican support more generally. In contrast to the overwhelming support from Senate Republicans, only eighty-five House Republicans, barely over a third of the majority, voted for the plan. In a further sign of trouble ahead for Boehner, the second-and third-ranking GOP leaders, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, voted no, while John Boehner, in a rare and striking move for a Speaker (they rarely vote), went to the floor to cast a conspicuous aye vote—a clear sign from the Speaker that he was not happy with those members who undercut his Plan B, much less with those of his fellow leaders who undercut the difficult compromise that Boehner had not brokered but had strongly supported.
After that vote—in which the Speaker violated the so-called “Hastert Rule,” devised by his predecessor as Republican Speaker, Dennis Hastert, that any bill brought to the floor would require first support from a majority of the majority—Boehner knew that immediately bringing up another bill that fell even more short of Hastert Rule standards would result in a serious conservative backlash. So he was forced to pull back a bill to provide aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, violating his promise to representatives from the Northeast. At that time, with devastation across the region and a dire shortage of funds to feed, clothe, and house victims of the storm, the Boehner move triggered visible outrage and public condemnation of his actions from Northeastern Republicans, including New York’s Peter King, one of Boehner’s most loyal House supporters, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. King said afterward, “What they did last night is put a knife in the backs of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It’s an absolute disgrace.” He added, “I’ve had it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on my own. They’re going to have to go a long way to get my vote on anything.” For a Speaker already struggling to maintain internal discipline, this blunt statement from a loyalist was not a good sign. When Boehner did bring up the bill for Sandy aid again, in January, it followed the same formula as the fiscal cliff vote—passage with far more Democrats than Republicans. But this time, the bill got only forty-nine Republican votes, with 179 opposed.
The way the fiscal cliff deal and the disaster relief bill came about were not especially promising for action on the broader array of fiscal issues ahead, among them the sequester, postponed in its effective date until March 1 by the fiscal cliff deal, the resolution for continuing spending for the current fiscal year, spending plans for the next fiscal year beginning October 1, 2013, and the next battle over the debt ceiling, likely sometime in the coming summer. But at the same time, there were signs of green shoots in other areas. That was especially true of immigration reform, an issue that was completely off the table before the election but emerged full-blown after Republicans lost both Hispanic American and Asian American voters by huge margins. In late January, a promising comprehensive plan was advanced by a “gang of eight,” an impressive group of senators including Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Marco Rubio of Florida. This group truly spanned the ideological spectrum and offered a plan with a series of exquisitely balanced compromises over an even tougher border, a guest worker program, and a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented individuals in the United States, and offered serious hope of movement in the Senate, at least, within a matter of months. By April, a compromise was at hand, driven in large part by the Republican fear that failure to act would doom the party to permanent minority status by losing even more Hispanic and Asian support. Turning amnesty from a four-letter word to a seven-letter word was a priority for Graham and Rubio. It remained a four-letter word for a lot of GOP primary voters, especially those in the South and Southwest.
At the same time, gun control, an intractable issue for many years in Congress, was suddenly on the table after a gunman killed twenty-six people, including twenty children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a staunch conservative who as a member of the fiscal “Gang of Six” sought to find compromise or common ground, joined an informal gathering of senators to try to find a broad consensus on a tougher background check plan that could be the centerpiece of some overhaul of gun laws. However, the delay in movement because of a preoccupation with resolving the fiscal cliff dulled some of the momentum on a bill. While the background check emerged as a strong possibility, the Gang-of-Four compromise foundered, but two senators who were strong gun advocates, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, stepped up to find a compromise on background checks that generated broader support, even though it was opposed by the National Rifle Association. The filibuster on the motion to proceed to debate on the bill failed, as sixteen Republicans voted to move ahead. That victory proved short-lived. The threat of a filibuster on the bill itself, and the fear of poison pill amendments, like a Republican one to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon in any state if the person could lawfully carry it in another state, led Reid to accept a sixty-vote threshold for all votes on the substance, including amendments and final passage. Forty-one of forty-five Republicans (joined by four of fifty-five Democrats) voted against the key background check compromise, in spite of 90 percent public approval and bipartisan authorship. Once again, the filibuster and overwhelming Republican opposition proved dispositive.
While many journalists blamed Obama for not being tough enough with senators, it was Pat Toomey himself who made clear what had happened, in a conversation with reporters: “In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”
There was still the daunting hurdle of fiscal policy. The “deal” on taxes that averted the fiscal cliff and put off the sequester and debt limit showdowns for a few months offered neither a guarantee nor a clear path to broader resolution of the debt problem, a bridge in the wide gap between the parties on taxes and spending, or a promise that the system would move away from the frequent rolling confrontations and hostage-taking brinksmanship that proved so debilitating in Obama’s first term.
To be sure, there was a growing consensus among mainstream economists and business leaders that the debt problem is real but not urgent, that austerity in the short term would weaken the economy, akin to Britain now or the United States in 1938. Another relatively modest tranche of deficit reduction, about $1.5 trillion over ten years from a combination of spending reductions and tax increases phased in as the economy recovered, would stabilize the U.S. debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio at acceptable levels and leave time for constructive steps to tame projected long-term deficits, mainly through more effective control of health-care costs, revenue-enhancing tax reform, and other policy initiatives to promote more substantial economic growth in the years ahead. But that consensus has entirely eluded the House majority, which first decided to pull out of negotiations with President Obama to produce such a deal and allow the automatic cuts under the sequester—done across the board without looking at public safety or national security implications—to go into effect, and then declared victory on making the government smaller as a result of the cuts that they had earlier labeled dumb. The House majority then doubled down in mid-March with a new budget (remarkably similar to the one the Romney-Ryan ticket ran and lost on) from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan that promised huge tax rate cuts and additional, draconian cuts in discretionary domestic spending that would, if enacted, threaten the economic recovery, damage core areas of government responsibility, and devastate health, food, and housing assistance for low-income households.
As Ryan unveiled his radical budget in mid-March 2013, he told National Review, “So just because the election didn’t go our way, that means we’re supposed to change our principles? We’re supposed to just go along to get along? We reject that view.” The segue from Speaker Boehner’s warm words of conciliation to these show more clearly than anything we might say the continuing challenges—and pathologies—that face the American political system.
Despite the signs of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate, the House remains a huge obstacle; the extremist Republicans in the body have shown little interest in national opinion, the need to compromise, or the actions of their GOP counterparts in the Senate. National trends mean little to the majority of House Republicans, who represent constituents whose attitudes are shaped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, not by Lindsey Graham, Speaker John Boehner, or former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Understandably, they worry more about primary challenges than the opinions of their House Republican leaders, much less national Republican icons.
It is clear that Republicans intend to use their continuing House majority (one they expect to be renewed again in the 2014 midterm elections) to stick to their principles on no new taxes and scale back the size and role of government. They appear to be somewhat more wary of the tactics they use, if only to avoid the political blame for shutting down government. Thus, we witnessed no provocative rhetoric from GOP leaders (although plenty from the rank-and-file) about not passing a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government. Neither party had any stomach for shutting down government, so a CR incorporating the sequester cuts while providing some limited flexibility to agency officials charged with implementing the across-the-board cuts won support from both parties and easy passage. But the dramatic differences in the dueling 2013–2014 budget resolutions passed by the House Republicans and Senate Democrats showed such different world views that there were long odds for the illusive Grand Bargain to replace the sequester with defensible spending cuts and achieve a level of deficit reduction sufficient to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio and buy time to deal with the long-term fiscal challenges. If that irresolution persists, it means a continuation of partisan battles, manufactured crises, and squandered opportunities to buttress the economic recovery and stabilize public finances.
Dysfunctional politics during the second Obama term will not be limited to the House and struggles over taxes and spending. In spite of an agreement on January 24, 2013, between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to approve very modest changes in rules to expedite Senate business, Republicans immediately flexed their filibuster-empowered muscles to oppose the confirmation of a number of high-level executive appointees, including some nominated for Cabinet positions. They also sustained filibusters against two very well-qualified judicial appointees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and signaled they would do everything in their power to deny the president his ability to repopulate the federal judiciary. As Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein has argued, simple policy disagreement with a judicial nominee, not just problems of character or extremism, is now deemed sufficient for a minority party in the Senate to deny a president his constitutional authority.
Sources of Dysfunction
The year that has passed since this book first appeared has done nothing to make us question our analysis of the causes of America’s dysfunctional politics. First, today’s sharply polarized and strategically focused political parties fit poorly with a constitutional system that anticipates collaboration as well as competition within and across separated institutions. As we initially wrote, parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution. The continuation of divided party government and the promiscuous use of the filibuster after the 2012 election have largely frustrated the policy direction affirmed by majority electorates and supported in polls of voters taken since the election.
Second, the Republican Party continues to demonstrate that it is an insurgent force in our politics, one that aspires to rewrite the social contract and role of government developed and affirmed over a century by both major political parties. The old conservative GOP has been transformed into a party beholden to ideological zealots, one that sees little need to balance individualism with community, freedom with equality, markets with regulation, state with national power, or policy commitments with respect for facts, evidence, science, and a willingness to compromise.
These two factors—asymmetric polarization and the mismatch between our parties and governing institutions—continue to account for the major share of our governing problems. But the media continues, for the most part, to miss this story. A good example was the flurry of coverage in the early months of the 113th Congress based on or at best testing the proposition that policymaking failures could be attributed to the failures of Obama’s presidential leadership. Bob Woodward may have started the pack journalism with his conclusion that President Obama, unlike his predecessors Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, “failed to work his will on Congress” (whatever that means). Soon the critical question to be parsed by the press was whether elements of Obama’s personality (aloofness) or strategic decisions on how and when to engage members of Congress, especially Republicans, accounted for the failure to reach bipartisan consensus. Republicans were delighted to provide commentary on behalf of the affirmative: “he doesn’t call us, meet with us, invite us to the White House, listen to our views, understand where we are coming from, etc.” The drumbeat from the press eventually led Obama to respond. He hosted a dinner with a dozen Republican senators at The Jefferson, lunch with Paul Ryan at the White House, and then a second dinner with another group of Republican senators. He also made trips to Capitol Hill to meet separately with both Republican conferences and Democratic caucuses. Initial reactions from participants were favorable, but it wasn’t long before reporters wondered if the president’s “charm offense” was failing.
The framing of this question reveals much about the state of American politics and media commentary on dysfunctional government. Presidential leadership is contextual—shaped by our unique constitutional arrangements and the electoral, partisan, and institutional constraints that flow from and interact with them. Under present conditions of deep ideological polarization of the parties, rough parity between Democrats and Republicans that fuels a strategic hyperpartisanship, and divided party government, opportunities for bipartisan coalitions on controversial policies are severely limited. Constraints on presidential leadership today are exacerbated by the relentlessly oppositional stance taken by the Republicans since Obama’s initial election, their continuing embrace of Grover Norquist’s “no new tax” pledge, and their willingness since gaining the House majority in 2011 to use a series of manufactured crises to impose their policy preferences on the Democrats with whom they share power. Persuasion matters if the people you are trying to persuade have any inclination to go along, or any attachment to the concept of compromise. But if a mythical magician could create a president from the combined DNA of FDR, LBJ, Tip O’Neill, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the resulting super-president would be no more successful at charming or working his will in this context.
Ironically, Obama made great efforts to work cooperatively with Republicans during his first term. He learned painfully that his public embrace of a policy virtually ensures Republican opposition and that intensive negotiations with Republican leaders are likely to lead to a dead end. No bourbon-and-branch-water-laced meetings with Republicans in Congress or preemptive compromises with them will induce cooperative behavior. The scope for presidential leadership is limited, and based not on naïveté about the opposition he faces but on a hard-headed determination to make some cooperation in the electoral interests of enough Republicans to break the “taxes are off the table” logjam and move forward with an economic agenda that makes sense to most nonpartisan analysts and most Americans.
The president may be helped, a bit ironically, by the “lame duck” status conferred on him by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. If Mitch McConnell’s number-one goal in 2011–2012 was to make Obama a one-term president, he has to adjust the goal in 2013–2014; after all, he has already achieved the goal of making Obama a two-term president, and he cannot win a third term. McConnell has two main objectives now: winning his own reelection and a Republican majority in the Senate in the 2014 midterm election. Those goals, to be sure, are in some conflict, since McConnell will have to be very wary of his own right flank. But given the public unhappiness with Washington and gridlock, the latter goal will not easily be achieved by obduracy and confrontation. Any hope of progress on major or minor issues rests with the desire by some Senate Republicans, for their own reasons, to cooperate with the president, and with the willingness of the Speaker of the House, once bills pass the Senate with comfortable bipartisan majorities, to bring them up for votes that may well find resistance from a majority of House Republicans.
Prospects for Change
As we write, there remains some chance that negotiations over the FY 2014 budget will produce an agreement, more a “mini-bargain” than “grand bargain,” that replaces the sequester with a package of discretionary and mandatory cuts in spending and revenue increases—one that allows for much-needed investments in research and infrastructure; avoids harmful cuts in essential government programs; makes some tangible progress in slowing the growth rate of entitlement programs, mostly those for the elderly and disabled; and further reduces projected annual deficits over the next decade. The specific components of such an agreement are clearly in sight (and incorporated into the president’s FY2014 budget). If achieved, they would position the country to both invest immediately in economic growth and begin to tackle the long-term challenges associated with an aging society and growing health-care costs.
Any degree of success in this arena requires enlisting a small group of Senate Republicans who have tired of the lockstep opposition to Obama and relish an opportunity to legislate. As we’ve seen, there are ample numbers of House Republicans who don’t feel the need to answer to their Senate colleagues and allow a vote. But a coalition of seventy or more senators passing such a package might generate enough political pressure that Speaker Boehner needs once again to set aside the Hastert Rule and bring the measure to the House floor. It’s quite likely that such a vote would allow a Democratic majority, with a small number of Republican supporters, to prevail. But we are all too aware that there is a more plausible pessimistic scenario, in which the Norquist tax pledge retains its hold on virtually all Republicans in Congress, preventing the enactment of such an agreement and tempting Republicans to return to a strategy of hostage taking and brinkmanship built around the need to raise the debt limit.
A brighter future for politics and policy requires a different Republican Party, one no longer beholden to its hard right and willing to operate within the mainstream of American politics. After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience. The initial post-2012 election assessment by the Republican National Committee took some steps toward frankly acknowledging their problems with the electorate and suggesting a course of action. However, with the striking exception of immigration policy, it moved little beyond message and process and in no way questioned the party’s absolutist position on taxes or crabbed position on the scope and size of government. That failure to move further made it even more difficult for the few problem-solving-oriented House conservatives, along with some of those in the Senate, to ignore the threat of well-financed primary challenges for apostasy from those absolutist causes.
Republicans have reason to believe the 2014 midterm elections will strengthen their position in Congress, even if they continue on the oppositionist course they set in the 112th Congress. Midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party, and if there is disgruntlement over continued dysfunction, voters may take it out on the perceived party in charge. But Republicans also know that there are risks associated with brinksmanship and obstruction, and they could be setting themselves up for a trouncing in 2016. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians and their parties so much as the prospect of electoral defeat and political marginalization.
Excerpted with permission from “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.