Doubling Down on a Losing Hand

Republican members of Congress face the greatest threat from primary challenges, so that's what shapes their agenda.

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Politico has an article today looking at the "wonks versus pols" divide in the GOP, how Republican strategists and egg heads are urging the party to expand its focus from spending-cut monomania, advice actual office holders are ignoring. It makes good points about what ails the GOP but actually understates the party's problem: It's not simply that Republicans haven't changed their (Reagan-era) policy prescriptions in the wake Mitt Romney's 2012 flop—in fact the party is preparing to double down on them.

Politico's Jonathan Martin writes today:

Almost daily, there is a fresh op-ed or magazine piece from the class of commentators and policy intellectuals urging Republicans to show a little intellectual leg and offer some daring and innovation beyond the old standbys of cutting income taxes and spending. It's not that the eggheads are urging moderation — it's more like relevance. The standard plea: The GOP will rebound only when it communicates to working-class and middle-class voters how its ideas will improve their lives.

But there is virtually no evidence that these impassioned appeals for change are being listened to by the audience that matters — Republican elected officials. With few exceptions, most of the GOP leadership in Washington is following a business-as-usual strategy. The language and tactics being used in this winter's battles with President Barack Obama are tried-and-true Republican maxims that date back to the Reagan era or before. And that, say the wonks, spells political danger and more electoral decline.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

J-Mart goes on to quote a whole host of unelected conservative thinkers from Michael Gerson to Newt Gingrich to Peggy Noonan and so on urging the GOP to broaden its policy horizons. He quotes National Review editor Rich Lowry in a recent Politico column: "The problem with the deficit as an issue is that people care about economic growth more, and the problem with spending cuts is that people like them more in the abstract than in reality. At times, it seems as if ‘we have a $16 trillion debt' is the sum total of the party's argumentation."

But not only are House Republicans ignoring the advice from the cheap seats, they're doing so in dramatic—if puzzling—style. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote yesterday:

... if you look beyond the rhetoric and focus on the policy, House Republicans are proposing much harsher spending cuts this year than they did last year. On fiscal issues, the party has moved far to the right since the election.

...

[House Budget Committee Chairman Paul] Ryan was, of course, on the ticket in the 2012 election, and many Republicans interpreted the loss as a message that the GOP's monomaniacal focus on government spending wasn't helping the party. But while that might be a convincing political diagnosis, the reality is that the members of the House Republican Conference remain monomaniacally focused on spending cuts, and they're forcing the GOP even further to the right on the issue.

That means that even as the party's national tacticians try to move away from being the party of spending cuts, they'll [h]ave even harsher and more dramatic spending cuts to answer for.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

It's worth thinking through the political logic here. The GOP ran on a tax and spending cuts platform, including putting Ryan—the very face of austerity—on their ticket. They lost in a race that wasn't close: President Obama achieved re-election by four percentage points and five million votes and he was the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to crack 51 percent two elections in a row; Democrats gained seats in the House and Senate and got a million more votes for their House candidates than the GOP did (Republicans held the House in no small part because of gerrymandering and Democrats' habit of packing into cities). The GOP's national approval rating is at or near historic lows, depending on which polls you read.

So how does the party react to this? By dramatically doubling down on the policy agenda which only months ago was roundly rejected by the voters. Why? I see three interrelated reasons.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the GOP's Problem in its Strategies or its Policies?]

First some conservatives haven't accepted the election results as a legitimate expression of popular will. I think there's an element of: It's not that the country has shifted, it's just that Obama turned out more of his voters. You could see this attitude in the defenses of the proposals to gerrymander the Electoral College (too many city folks are voting so rural voters need to have their votes augmented). You could hear it in the January assertion by GOP megadonor Foster Friess that "the American people gave the Republicans a mandate in the last election" which was only "masked by the fact that on the presidential level, the capability and the competence and the power of the Democratic organization Obama put together overshadowed that." Friess went on to argue at the time that when considering political mandates, the votes of "center cities"—where the president ran up his tally—should not be taken into account.

Second while thinkers on the right might yearn for policy creativity, the GOP is at the moment confined by the purity and reductio ad absurdum logic of its base. They don't want creative conservative government, they want minimal government. Hence the 1980s-style cut-cut-cut (taxes, spending, regulation) box in which the GOP finds itself.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Group Good for the GOP?]

Finally, the party has a base problem. There's a growing divide between the swing voters who carry national elections and the electorate that controls Republican primaries, especially the Tea Party activists. You can see it on questions of how to solve the deficit problem, whether to compromise in general, the minimum wage, and so on. On the question of austerity versus broader policy creativity, the conservative thinkers Politico quotes are out of sync with the base because they're more focused on swing voters and national politics while the base remains enamored of spending cuts. President Obama is determined to drive his agenda right through that gap, forcing Republicans to take sides on broadly popular measures that their base hates. It's a win-win for him: Either he gets policy wins or his party has political issues which they can use in the 2014 midterms.

In a sense the GOP's success in the last round of redistricting—creating what the Cook Political Report sees as over 200 safe GOP districts—is proving Pyrrhic. If you're a Republican member of Congress your greatest existential threat comes from primary challenges, so that's what shapes your agenda, even if it comes at the cost of national political viability.

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