Hey, guys, there was an election

Why House Republicans and their leader are behaving like Obama didn't win

Published March 15, 2013 11:47AM (EDT)

On Thursday, the top Democrat in the House made what amounted to a major concession, pronouncing herself open to the idea of reducing Social Security benefits. This moved Nancy Pelosi closer to the position that President Barack Obama, who has already put out a plan that includes chained-CPI, has staked out in pursuit of a deficit reduction "grand bargain" with Republicans. This could make it easier for Obama to convince Senate Republicans, whom he's begun courting in recent weeks, that he can deliver on a deal that includes real sacrifices on Democratic priorities.

And how does the top Republican in the House fit into this mix? Well, he doesn't.

In a Thursday interview with the New York Times, Speaker John Boehner said he's not currently engaged in budget conversations with the White House and suggested the onus is on Obama to move closer to the blueprint that Paul Ryan staked out this week -- a 10-year balanced budget plan that the GOP-controlled House will probably adopt in the next week. That Ryan budget offers absolutely nothing in the way of concessions. But for a few cynical accounting tricks, it's the same plan Ryan presented in 2012 and 2011, one that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy, gut the Affordable Care Act and turn federal programs targeted for the poor into block grants for states to manage. It was this radical rethinking of the size and scope of the federal safety net that played a major role in last year's election, with Democrats warning voters that the Ryan plan would be implemented if Republicans gained control of the executive and legislative branches.

In other words, House Republicans -- and their leader -- haven't budged at all on fiscal issues since the election, even though the results were humbling for their party. Sure, they provided a scattering of votes for the New Year's Eve fiscal cliff deal that raised income tax rates on high-end earners, but a) that was because they were up against a Jan. 1 deadline that would have triggered across-the-board tax hikes for all earners if no deal was reached; and b) the majority of House Republicans still voted against that package. And since that deal was enacted, the determination of House Republicans to stop any further revenue increases -- even those involving loopholes and deductions, not income tax rates -- has only intensified. The president already got his tax hikes, the GOP talking point goes, and now he wants more?

The reason Obama wants more, of course, is that he and most of his party (and, truth be told, a number of Republicans) would like to turn off the sequester, which went into effect on March 1 when the two parties failed to reach agreement on a replacement plan. The stumbling block was simple: Republicans were adamant in opposing a "balanced" deal with a revenue component. Many of them also claimed that Obama wasn't serious about cutting entitlement spending, even though the president produced the above-referenced plan, which included Social Security benefits cuts. It's clear that, for the time being anyway, House Republicans are completely uninterested in striking a fiscal deal with Obama, unless the deal is that he goes along with everything they want.

What's so striking -- and, some might say, galling -- about this is that Republicans lost pretty badly in the most recent election. No, it wasn't en epic LBJ '64-style wipeout, but the party spent 2011 and 2012 convinced that the rotten economy would compel voters to fire Obama, restore Republican control of the Senate and boost the GOP's House majority. But none of that happened. As I wrote last week, it can sometimes feel like Republicans actually won the election. The problem is mainly centered in the House, although the Senate has more than its share of problems, and can be explained by two main factors:

1. Geography

The average House Republican represents a district that is older, whiter and more Republican-friendly than the country as a whole. Gerrymandering is typically cited as the reason for this, but it's a red herring. The real problem is that the core Democratic vote -- a rising majority of nonwhites, millennials, single women and college-educated professionals -- is tightly bunched in metropolitan areas. They account for massive majorities in a relatively small number of congressional districts. Suburban, exurban and rural areas, by contrast, tend to be populated by more Republican-friendly voters, who are more widely dispersed. Thus, it's not uncommon in big states for Democrats to enjoy clear majorities in statewide elections even as Republicans gobble up the majority of House seats. Barring the kind of anti-Republican wave elections we saw in 2006 and 2008, this dynamic should persist through the next decade, ensuring Republican control of the House. The Republicans in these districts are mostly immune to the cultural and demographic changes that hurt their party at the national level in 2012; thus, the same reflexively anti-tax/anti-government/anti-Obama hysteria that sold in these areas before November 2012 still sells today -- making it likely that these districts will send to Washington either a) true believer Tea Party-type congressmen and -women, who win their seats simply by running far to the right in the GOP primary; or b) secretly pragmatic Republicans who adopt the rhetoric and voting habits of the Tea Party crowd for the sake of their own political survival.

2. The powerless speaker

A case can be made that Boehner's skills as a House leader are underappreciated. There's something to this, but it's an argument that amounts to a backhanded compliment -- that Boehner, by routinely looking the other way as his party worsens its public image and subjecting himself to the occasional high-profile indignity, is able to build just enough clout to steer the House GOP away from complete catastrophe when he absolutely has to. There's an art to this, all right, and I guess you could say Boehner is good at it. But that's really the limit of his power as speaker. The problem is that the conservative movement has never trusted him and has been looking for the moment he sells them out from the second he claimed the speaker's gavel in 2011. This has imposed some humiliating limits on him -- forcing Boehner, for instance, to walk away at the 11th hour from grand bargain negotiations with Obama in the summer of '11 and compelling him to promise Republicans a few months ago that he wouldn't attempt any more one-on-one negotiations with the president.

So when it comes to Obama's current quest for a grand bargain, there's really nothing for Boehner to do but repeat the right's familiar attacks on Obama for always wanting to raise taxes and never wanting to cut spending. Never mind, of course, that Obama has already signed off on $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction and is seeking $1.2 trillion more with his grand bargain crusade, and that most of that money is from spending cuts. Acknowledging that would destroy whatever credibility Boehner now has with the conservative base, and make it impossible for him to push any kind of deal through the House without being dethroned. So he bashes away, pretends the problem is Obama's inflexible liberalism and waits. What the endgame is is unclear. It may just be that Boehner is hoping to keep the GOP conference from pursuing a debt ceiling showdown in May. Or maybe he's hoping that after a few more months of bashing Obama, he just might have clearance to put a Senate-passed grand bargain on the House floor and to allow it to pass mainly with Democratic votes. Or he may think none of this is possible -- and may mainly be interested in patching up the damage the fiscal cliff deal did to his standing with the right.

The key here is that Boehner oversees a Republican conference whose members do not, generally speaking, feel any personal pressure to respond to the Democrats' big national victory last November. In the America where they leave, Obama and the national Democratic Party are as reviled now as they were before Election Day.  

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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