Friday, December 13, 2013

The ground has shifted and the long game is paying off (updated)

Yesterday the ground shifted in our political debate. Did you notice? It all started with Speaker Boehner's weekly press conference.

He not only said the teapublicans had "lost all credibility," he talked about the need for finding "common ground" - something that was repeated by Representatives Ryan and Cantor on the floor of the House later. If you remember, Boehner is the same guy who literally couldn't say the word "compromise" a few years ago.

So its clear that Republican leadership in the House has changed their tune - big time! I'd like to take a few minutes to think about how/why that happened. And rather than do what so many in the media tend to do, lets look at the long game on how we got here rather than simply focus on the recent past.

All of this started in January 2009 when a group of Republicans met to discuss strategy on the evening of Barack Obama's inauguration. Their plan, as we watched it unfold over these last 5 years, was to attempt to discredit the President and the Democrats by simply opposing anything they wanted to do. And so they became the "party of no," operating in a post policy fashion with a stated goal of making Obama a one-term President.

When the Democrats passed the Recovery Act and Obamacare basically without any support from Republicans, they ramped up the fear and paranoia of their base voters with thinly disguised racist dog whistles and fear mongering about Obamacare. Set in a backdrop of the Great Recession, this spurred the birth of the teapublicans and gave them a majority in the House as a result of the midterms. With the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate also gone, the strategy of total obstruction was possible to implement and, minus the ability to actually govern, the Republicans proceeded to regularly hold the country hostage over budget deals in an attempt to force their draconian policies on the country.

In the midst of all this, progressives and pundits had lots of advice for how President Obama should handle the obstruction. Many of the DC village press corp played the false equivalency game and critiqued the President for being aloof - failing to reach out enough to Republicans. What that suggestion failed to take into account is that obstruction was the Republican strategy. No amount of effort from the President was going to change that.

Progressives got angry and wanted the President to do so as well. There were calls for him to "man up" and give the teapublicans a dose of their own medicine. If Obama had followed this advice, it would have entrenched the battle. The American public, observing such a scene would have been justified in blaming both sides, saying "a pox on both your houses" and disengaging even further.

Anyone who has watched Barack Obama or read what he's written over the years knows that he would not take either form of advice. Here's James Kloppenberg making that point back in 2010.
...Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. Perhaps the critics should read—or reread—the president’s own books...

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.

Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.
So, what course did President Obama take to deal with Republican obstruction? As is typical, he played the long game. First of all, he reached out to an attempt to find that common ground. As his efforts were rebuffed, the Republicans had no choice but to become more and more extremist in their response, fueling their angry, fearful, racist base to compensate. This is what I've often called conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy.

Finally, as some Republicans began to wake up to how much this extremism was hurting them, President Obama switched gears and started working on building a common sense caucus to invite a minority of Republicans to work with him in finding that common ground.

Yesterday, even Speaker Boehner demonstrated that he's had enough with the extremists. The end result is that last night, the House passed a bi-partisan budget bill with 169 Republican votes and 164 Democratic votes - no hostage-taking required. The teapublicans were limited to 62.

We'll have to wait and see how this plays out with Boehner in the future. But for once, I hope the teapublican cheerleader Erick Erickson is right. He's predicting this is all a set-up for Boehner to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And...we're off to the races!

Let me end by saying that none of this means that we're moving into some kind of utopia where Republicans sign on to a liberal agenda. The battles ahead will be fierce. What it does mean is two things: first of all, the strategy of total obstruction has been compromised and secondly, Charles Krauthammer's worst nightmare is in the process of coming true.
He’s [Obama's] been using this, and I must say with great skill–-and ruthless skill and success–to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition… His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he’s done that.
Way to go, Mr. President!

UPDATE: To be clear, I think Brian Beutler is right in downplaying the policy implications of this change.
Boehner’s always done what the professional right wants except when the right’s strategic and self-serving objectives would prove substantively and politically calamitous.
That's why I said that the political battles ahead would continue to be fierce. But what's important to note is that those calamitous strategic objectives (ie, total obstruction and hostage-taking) have not just been the purview of the "professional right" (read: teapublicans) over the last 5 years. They have been the adopted strategy of the Republican Party from top to bottom. So what's important to note is the strategy (rather than the policy) break. It means the battles will be played on a different terrain going forward and the Republican civil war that has been engaged will be a big part of that terrain.


  1. The speed with which the budget process happened was brilliant. Neither of the extreme wings got a chance to gin up their opposition to the budget and are left impotently shaking their fists at the sky as a result. They didn't have time to even consider the Hastert rule because not enough of the tea faction could even get through the budget, much less form a consensus that it was bad. This would not have worked nearly as well if Heritage Action hadn't shot itself in the foot over immigration and lost all credibility since then. So they ranted and raved and 169 Republicans completely ignored them. Taking Heritage Action, and possibly even the Heritage Foundation out of the equation might be the biggest accomplishment of all.

    1. Yep, I think Boehner actually played this pretty well if his strategy going forward is to marginalize the teapublicans. He gave them their shutdown over O'care to demonstrate how futile their agenda is. And then he came back blasting them over this budget deal - as you said - too quickly to give them any steam.

      When you think about it though - what choice does he have at this point? He's between the proverbial rock and hard place (Yeah Obama!) at the moment. Either he continues to follow the teapublicans into oblivion or he takes on a Republican civil war. At least the outcome of the latter is still up for grabs.


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