After House Speaker John Boehner put immigration reform back on ice a couple weeks ago, the most obvious assessment was that the GOP had completely suspended its own agenda, at least until after midterm elections. That the Republican party's political strategy will consist solely of an eight-month long bet that the Affordable Care Act will doom Democrats in November.
That was definitely my assessment. I know others shared it. But in case you're looking for third-party validation, conservative reporters back us up.
The Washington Post's Robert Costa concludes: "Comprehensive immigration reform, tax reform, tweaks to the federal health-care law — bipartisan deals on each are probably dead in the water for the rest of this Congress." He reports:
"We don’t have 218 votes in the House for the big issues, so what else are we going to do?” said Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio). “We can do a few things on immigration and work on our principles, but in terms of real legislating, we’re unable to get in a good negotiating position.”
Added Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who works closely with party leaders: “It is an acknowledgment of where they stand, where nothing can happen in divided government so we may essentially have the status quo. Significant immigration reform and fundamental tax reform are probably not going to happen.”
It's not so uncommon for legislative activity to slow down ahead of an election, so I won't pretend this is some kind of extraordinary phenomenon.
But February is a little early for one party to make a total transition from policymaking to politicking, particularly when the other is actively rolling out a positive, popular agenda.
The Senate's already passed a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid uses the Senate to pass (or to force Republicans to filibuster) another bill renewing emergency unemployment compensation, a Voting Rights Act patch, an equal pay bill, a minimum wage bill, and so on, it's going to start to look extremely awkward if the House has literally nothing to offer in return other than comparably picayune gimmicks.
Health care might be the exception. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has practically committed to passing an Affordable Care Act alternative this year. But if past is prologue, this intention will fizzle. Which would leave Republicans saddled with full repeal -- a political loser -- as their official health care reform platform going into the midterms.
All else equal, I'd say this is a very bad strategy. But all else isn't equal. To balance out the Democrats' agenda, Republicans would need to cull big, popular, conservative bills from their own agenda and pass them on contemporaneously in the House. But their agenda isn't exactly littered with popular items. It's littered with things like trying to throw newly insured poor people off Medicaid, "trying to create a barrier to [Affordable Care Act] enrollment," and empowering individuals, businesses, and public officials to discriminate against same-sex spouses. If that's what Republicans are up to at the state level, it's probably wise, by comparison, for Republicans in Washington to do literally nothing at all.
But there's more than just aimlessness at work here. The electoral map is also probably creating inertia by making the GOP's strategy unfalsifiable. This year, Senate Democrats are defending the seats they won in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency in a landslide amid the massive economic crisis that capped off George W. Bush's horrendously unpopular presidency. They're also defending the House in a midterm three years after they gerrymandered themselves a durable majority. Under the circumstances, even a bad GOP strategy will probably yield significant gains in the Senate and retention of the House. If Republicans manage to flip the Senate it won't really matter whether it was a consequence of boring fundamentals rather than a wise political strategy. They'll treat it as a vindication of anti-ACA absolutism anyhow. And so it's hard to escape the suspicion that the GOP's advantages this cycle explain its midterm strategy rather than the other way around.
Still, it really is unusual for a party to put all their chips in one basket like this, so early in the cycle. And that's a story unto itself.
Ahead of the 2006 midterms, Congressional Democrats outlined a fairly broad and thorough agenda and vowed to advance them through the House within the first 100 working hours of their majority in the event that they won. When they did win, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi definitely let Bush be The Story for the next two years. But she also moved a bunch of items that lacked GOP support through the House to establish a Democratic agenda (including familiar items like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Employee Free Choice Act, and two different State Children's Health Insurance Plan expansions, both of which President Bush decided to veto). Moreover she managed to pass some actual laws, including two stimulus bills (can you imagine if Obama requested a stimulus bill now?) and marshaled overwhelming Democratic support (twice) for the bill that ultimately authorized TARP when then-minority leader John Boehner couldn't muster half his conference to support the bailout President Bush demanded.
This year's Republicans aren't capable of anything similar. Winning in 2014 might not require them to be. But it might also leave them without much to tell the public if it watches Democrats actually doing things and begins to wonder what the GOP has to offer other than a single-minded hatred of Obamacare.