GOP’s empty agenda problem: Party’s poised to take power, but agrees on nothing

Intraparty squabbling and ideological rifts leave GOP leadership handcuffed. Here's why they may accomplish nothing

Topics: Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Republicans, House Republicans, 2014 elections, Midterms, midterm elections, Fiscal cliff, Debt ceiling, Government shutdown, Thom Tillis, Tom Cotton,

GOP's empty agenda problem: Party's poised to take power, but agrees on nothingRand Paul, John Boehner, Ted Cruz (Credit: AP/Ed Reinke/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

If you had to guess which issue is holding the unruly GOP together heading into the 2014 midterms, what would you say it is? Is it taxes? The deficit? Drug policy? Abortion?

Sorry, time’s up. The answer we were looking for is “NOBAMA.” (We also would have accepted “Obummer.”)

A new poll from the New York Times finds that “for all of the GOP’s unity in opposing President Obama, Republicans disagree on many issues.” The GOP’s strong hand going into November can be chalked up in part to the fact that, for the moment, Republican internal divisions and lack of a coherent policy agenda are subordinate to the party’s anger at the president. Throw in a tough electoral map for the Democrats and a dispassionate Democratic base, and the chances of Republicans taking control of the legislative branch look pretty good.

Of course, should the GOP take control, the inevitable question arises: What then?

Well, if one were to guess based on the fractious nature of the Republican electorate and the track record of the House GOP the last few years, the answer looks to be “nothing.” The Republicans, though well-positioned to take power, have transitioned into a post-governance mode.

A long piece in the Times this morning on John Boehner and immigration reform serves as a reminder of what an intractable mess the House of Representatives has become since 2010. The Times article lays out the strategy by which Boehner can succeed in pushing immigration reform through: a narrow and “treacherous” path beset by so many ideological hurdles and pitfalls that it’s hard to imagine the speaker actually contemplating it. “Inaction offers the path of least resistance,” the Times observed.

That phrase could double as the slogan for Boehner’s speakership. The only issue that the Republican leadership has been able to bring its members together on has been the quixotic pursuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On matters of actual importance, ideology has bumped up hard against the practical realities of governance, resulting in paralysis.



Remember the fiscal cliff, when the White House and Congress were trying to negotiate on tax increases in the aftermath of Obama’s reelection? Those negotiations were proceeding apace until Boehner, in a misguided power play, broke off talks and introduced his own plan to raise taxes on just millionaires. That plan failed because members of his own party, wedded to anti-tax dogma, refused to go along with any plan that raised taxes, even on people with seven-figure incomes. It was left to the White House and the Senate to clean up Boehner’s mess, and the fiscal cliff ended up being resolved in spite of the House GOP, which voted overwhelmingly against the final tax package.

The story has repeated itself time and again – the debt ceiling battles, the government shutdown. The ideological rifts of the Republican caucus and the ineptitude of the leadership transform the routine business of government into a punishing slog that finds resolution only when a crisis point has been reached.

The ideological divisions in the Senate run no less deep. A big reason the government shut down in the first place was because Ted Cruz was given the space to pursue a defund-Obamacare strategy that the leadership disagreed with. There’s no reason to think a Republican Senate majority featuring Thom Tillis or Tom Cotton would be any less unruly.

And one also has to wonder what happens when the Republicans no longer have Obama hatred to keep them all together. If Republican unity requires that they have a polarizing figure to collectively despise, then a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 might be the best thing to happen for the GOP.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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