There’s lots of buzz these days about how Barack Obama would need to recalibrate his presidency in the wake of a major power shift on Capitol Hill. To my ancient ears, the buzz conjures memories of 1995, when Bill Clinton reinvented himself in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s House Republican takeover by governing as a centrist, by doing deals with the Republican leaders. And now, nearly 15 years later, it feels as if the past is prologue; Obama is widely being urged to take the same route.
The problem, however, is that deals can’t be done unless both sides compromise. In the House, from 1995 to 1997, Gingrich compromised. In the Senate, GOP leader Bob Dole compromised. But that was the old Republican party. The new Republican party, the one that is presumably poised to win back at least one congressional chamber, considers compromise to be a form of surrender.
Why do I say it? Because the Republicans are already signaling it.
In the new issue of National Journal, a Washington magazine, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell said that, in the aftermath of a midterm victory, he wants to “finish the job.” The reporter then asked, “What’s the job?”
McConnell replied: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
He added: “Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.” And he dissed the Republican leaders who did deals with Clinton: “We need to work smarter than we did (in the ’90s).”
There you have it: what the GOP most wants to “achieve” is a partisan victory. In the short run, this is a blueprint for perpetual brinkmanship and gridlock.
And McConnell is hardly alone in his belief that bipartisanship is for wimps. Here’s what Mike Pence, the rising House Republican star, said the other day on conservative talk host Hugh Hewitt’s radio show: “There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare. There will be no compromise on stopping Democrats from growing government and raising taxes. And I haven’t been clear enough yet, let me say again: No compromise.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as pre-election bluster aimed merely at ginning up and maximizing the tea-party vote; Pence knows full well that “repealing Obamacare” won’t happen, not with Obama wielding a veto pen. It’s standard practice on the eve of a midterm election for a party to rhetorically stoke its base. But what’s really going on is far more profound. McConnell, Pence, and other elected Republican leaders are basically hostage to their tea-party base.
Starting next January (if we assume a GOP takeover of one or both chambers), any Republican who tries to work across the aisle with Obama is likely to be savaged by the base. Which means that the budget deal-making process would be quite fascinating. Out of necessity, Republican leaders would have to break bread with Obama simply to pass the budget. But what happens if the Republican leaders sign on to a red-ink budget that fails to radically slash the federal safety net? Would the tea-partiers insist, in the spirit of “no compromise,” that the Republicans shut down the government instead?
Perhaps McConnell, in particular, can be excused for his rhetorical brinkmanship; like so many other Republicans, he may be living in terror of being primaried down the road by a tea-partier on his right flank. But for a Senate leader to declare that defeating Obama in 2012 is a more important goal than doing deals for the American people in 2011…well, I’ll give the last word to talk show host Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman. As he said on the air yesterday:
“Mitch McConnell said that?!?…He admitted that on the record?!? That is embarrassing…Can I just say for the record – that is pathetic.”
I had more to say today in an hour-long Live Chat on another website. I’m always happy to invoke Neil Young.