The GOP takeover: Doubling down on dysfunction?

    When Jerry Moran, chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, was asked this morning whether midterm voters sent a message to the new Republican majority, he said yes. And this was the message: “Demonstrate that you can govern. Demonstrate that you can work together to solve the country’s problems.”

    Ha. Good luck with that.

    If you thought Washington was dysfunctional before, brace yourself. Republicans have no semblance of a governing plan – their basic midterm message was, “we’re not Obama” – and their ideologues have scant interest in governing anyway. In the words of Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “the tension between setting out and making concrete a positive agenda for governing, and the pressure to continue to block and obstruct, will be very, very high.”

    With the Senate in Republican hands, emboldened right-wing agitators will dog the party’s leaders at every step. Even before the votes were counted, the agitating group Heritage Action told its supporters in an email, “It will be hard work to repeal Obamacare….All too often, politicians campaign on conservative principles but vote like liberals once in Washington.”

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    Repeal Obamacare? That fantasy again?

    You bet. Ted Cruz, girding for battle on midterm eve, told The Washington Post that the new Senate majority should “pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare” via every parliamentary tactic. That’s a great way to gin up the conservative base – and potentially great for Cruz, whose jonesing to run in the ’16 GOP primaries – but it conflicts with reality: President Obama has the veto pen, and the Republican senators facing ’16 re-election in blue states (including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey) would likely balk at nixing a law that would strip health care from as many as 11 million people who never had it before.

    No matter. Cruz will have new pals, like Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, to help him push the party further rightward and away from the American mainstream. Besides Obamacare, there are all kinds of hot buttons that have no nothing to do with sane governance – like trying to kill the IRS, wreck bank reform, block immigration reform, and thwart the EPA by pretending that climate change is a myth.

    Problem is, the saner Senate Republicans say they want to govern – to break bread, not throw bombs. As incoming Colorado lawmaker Cory Gardner recently remarked, “Repulicans have to realize that this (midterm vote) isn’t some kind of – what’s the word I’m looking for – mandate or whatever. It’s a mandate against dysfunction.” As Ohio Sen. Rob Portman warned last Sunday, “If you continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to have the dysfunction that we’ve got right now.”

    Well, tell that to the agitators like Erik Erickson. Writing on his website the other day, he’s already denouncing the party “elite” for (in his view) selling out conservatives, for failing to craft a hard-right agenda, for being “covetous of power for the sake of power.” Mitch McConnell hasn’t even gotten the majority gavel, yet Erickson is already on his case: “When the new Republican Congress convenes next year, and looks over its shoulder, there won’t be many conservatives following.”

    Still, the conservatives do have the House of Representatives. Ah yes, the House. John Boehner’s redoubt hasn’t gotten much press attention; it’s not big news that a solidly Republican chamber is poised to become moreso.  But rest assured, the hardliners will now be furthered emboldened to pursue their daft crusades, from Benghazi to impeachment.

    Yeah, the I-word again. Here’s Ornstein: “I have talked off the record to some aides to tea party Republicans in the House, who say that they are getting a lot of push from their activist voters to impeach the president. (The aides), like their leaders, know how catastrophic that would be for Republicans heading into 2016 and will do what they can to head off the hotheads…(and keep) their party from veering off the edge.”

    The GOP leaders’ challenge is actually two-fold: If they crack down too hard on the hotheads, in the name of productive governance, they risk a right-wing backlash. But if they cave to the hotheads, they risk a backlash from the mainstream. Lest we forget, most Americans didn’t vote in the midterms (independents, in particular, showed little interest), and even among those who did vote, only 42 percent had a favorable view of the GOP – one point lower than support for the Democrats.

    So, big wins in ’14 notwithstanding, there’s no mandate to further gum up the government machinery. That would merely doom the party in 2016 – as Republican pollsters Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse acknowledged the other day:

    “Winning in a non-presidential-turnout year, when older and white voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate, should convince no one that we’ve fixed our basic shortfalls with key electoral groups, including minorities and younger voters….Even though President Obama is significantly less popular than he was two years ago, the GOP is not well positioned to capitalize because our party’s image has also gotten worse since 2012….Reminder to Tuesday’s winners: Threatening impeachment or shutting down the federal government doesn’t endear you to middle America.”

    Let that be a warning, about the pitfalls of failing to govern. But don’t be shocked if the warning goes unheeded.


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