Any day now, we are often assured, Republicans in Congress will start to take their jobs seriously. It hasn’t happened yet, but soon.
“I think a lot of people better get serious about governing,” Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said last Friday, after the House failed to fund the Department of Homeland Security past next Friday. It’ll happen. Any day. Any minute.
Of course, they were very serious about governing during the George W. Bush administration. But nobody — not even Bush’s closest relatives — want to think too hard about those days now.
And then the Obama landslide of 2008 made Republicans almost irrelevant for two years. Suddenly there was no point trying to take responsibility for anything, and Republicans discovered the invigorating thrill of pure nihilism. They were free to propose nothing and say no to everything, even their own ideas from that era we don’t talk about any more.
So when Obama based his healthcare proposal on Romneycare, Romney opposed it. McCain turned against the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan, and voted against his own immigration reform. Republicans were all mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more — whatever it was.
But when the low-turnout election of 2010 made John Boehner Speaker of the House, it was time to get serious and get back to governing responsibly. Wasn’t it? 
Then followed four years of playing chicken with the well-being of the Republic. That series of crises culminated in the government shutdown of 2013, when the executive branch was very nearly put in the impossible situation of being obligated to carry out Congress’ appropriations bills, but forbidden to raise the money by either taxing or borrowing. Crazy ideas like the trillion-dollar coin bounced around, because they were no crazier than everything else that was happening.
At the time, Republicans’ poll numbers dropped, and there was some thought that the voters might punish the party in 2014. But in fact the exact opposite happened: The voters gave them control of the Senate too.
But now, with control of both houses, they have something to prove. Don’t they? In January as the new completely-Republican-controlled Congress opened, John McCain expressed the party line:
I think a majority [of Republicans] recognize that we have to govern responsibly. We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016.
Two months later, DHS is living paycheck to paycheck, because House Republicans are mad as hell about immigration. They don’t have a coherent plan to undo President Obama’s executive actions, and they certainly don’t have an immigration plan of their own , but they’re mad! They have to do … something.
Meanwhile, we’re now up to 50 votes repealing ObamaCare, and not a single one on a Republican plan to replace it. Republicans nearly all acknowledge that parts of ObamaCare should be kept. (The part about pre-existing conditions, for example.) But coming up with a plan that actually does that? Making the compromises necessary to pass it into law? You’ve got to be kidding.
Discipline. In years past, the voters played the wait-til-your-father-gets-home role in American politics. A little bit of posturing and headline-grabbing was fine, even expected. But if a political temper tantrum gave the public reason to doubt the basic functions of government, somebody would pay come the next election.
Democrats, media pundits, and would-be grown-ups among the Republicans (i.e., McCain, Boehner, and McConnell) keep trying to invoke that discipline. But think about it: In 2013, for the sake of a plan that never had any chance of working, the Republican back-benchers shut down the government and very nearly broke the full faith and credit of the United States. And 13 months later, the voters gave their party more power.
We live in a new world, where Dad isn’t coming home and there’s no reason the kids should ever finish their vegetables and go to bed.
It’s time we understood how this new world works.
The difference between the parties. A cynical view of politics says that the two parties are just mirror images of each other, rival gangs competing for territory like West Side Story‘s Jets and Sharks.
But there is one key difference between the two: Democrats believe that government can change people’s lives for the better, and that we can do things together that we can’t do for ourselves. Together, we can have parks and libraries and public schools and clean air. We can soften the dog-eat-dog aspects of the capitalist system so that ordinary people have a chance. We can insure each other against disasters from hurricanes to cancer.
Republicans believe that government can only screw things up.
So when Republicans govern well, they refute themselves. If a Republican official solves a problem — like Mitt Romney did with health care in Massachusetts — it just creates an appetite for more government.
And that’s bad. To really prove the point that government can only screw things up, Republicans elected to office need to screw things up.
Turnout, not persuasion. In the old model of politics, there were “swing voters” — voters not identified with either party, who were open to persuasion. Each side had its partisans, but the one that convinced the swing voters would win.
One thing that swing voters found convincing was performance; that was where the discipline came from. If you made the United States look like a joke, they’d vote you out.
But that’s not how it works these days. Overwhelmingly, the people who care about politics enough to vote are identified with one party or the other, no matter what that party does. Today the question isn’t who you’ll vote for, it’s whether you’ll vote. (That’s how, for example, Mitt Romney got zero votes in some inner-city precincts of Philadelphia and Cleveland. Similarly, there were evangelical churches in the South where if you voted, you voted against Obama. So parties don’t bother trying to convince either set of voters, they just get their own to the polls.)
Take a look at how that works out in the vote totals for House races. (Data from Wikipedia.)
A few things to notice:
- Republicans got their biggest House majority in 2014, when they polled the fewest votes.
- When there’s a big turnout, the Democrats win the popular vote, but when turnout is small, Republicans win. Another way to say the same thing is that the Republican vote is steadier than the Democratic vote. The lowest Republican vote (2014) is still more than two-thirds of the highest (2012), while the lowest Democratic vote (2014) is barely more than half the highest (2008). Conclusion: The people who might or might not vote are overwhelmingly Democrats.
- Gerrymandering has locked in a certain amount of Republican advantage, so that winning the popular vote in 2012 didn’t get the Democrats control of the House.
Demographics. The big story after the 2012 election was that demographic trends favor the Democrats. The percentage of the country that is white shrinks every year, and Democrats are favored by non-whites. Young voters (who will be around for a while) trend Democratic, while old voters (who won’t) trend Republican. Christian voters (shrinking) trend Republican, while no-specified-religion voters (growing) trend Democratic.
Salivating over those delicious trends, Democrats started trying to predict the date when Texas turns blue. A report by College Republicans said that their party had to change: compromise on immigration and gay marriage, reach out to Hispanics, blacks, and young people.
None of those changes happened in 2014, and yet the GOP won big. How? The rising demographic groups didn’t vote.
Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.
Rather than continue its inexorable decline, the white vote increased from 72% in 2012 to 75% in 2014.
And that’s the secret to the lasting Republican congressional majority, and maybe to electing a Republican president in 2016: Don’t try to convince swing voters that Republicans can govern better than Democrats (or even govern at all). Just keep the rising demographic groups from voting.
No hope, no change. A portion of the blame/credit for the low turnout among minorities and youth in 2014 has to go to the intentional voter suppression Republicans have been focused on since 2010. They discovered that you don’t have to formally disenfranchise people to keep them away from the polls, you just have to make voting harder and less rewarding. Make people who don’t own cars (and so have no reason to already have a photo-ID drivers license) jump through an extra hoop. Make college students vote where their parents live. Gerrymander districts so that election results are a foregone conclusion. Shorten poll hours, make sure the lines are long in Democratic precincts, and so forth.
Marginal voters tend to have less slack in their lives than the more established non-urban whites of the Republican base. Getting to the polls is tougher, and standing in line for hours might mean you get fired or the kids are left unsupervised. So sure, each new hurdle in front of the voting booth is going to discourage more Democrats than Republicans.
That all has some effect, and will probably have more and more as it becomes normal and fails to provoke the backlash that motivated blacks (in particular) in 2012. But the real secret to lasting Republican power is motivational, or rather, de-motivational: Ruin people’s hope that politics can change their lives for the better.
People get involved in politics because they believe it can stop a war, save a school, jail the bankers who wrecked the economy, open doors for their racial group, give working people a chance, or secure their future against disasters of all sorts. They run away from politics when it looks like one of those pointless internet flame wars. Life is short and energy is limited. If politics is a waste of time, people who aren’t already committed to it will stay away — especially if their lives are hard enough already.
So when the marginal voters would vote against you, dysfunction becomes a strategy. Republican ideology already says that government can’t do anything but screw up. So if Congress is seen as just a bunch of jokers, that proves their point. If even the most obvious bill becomes impossible to pass, and the federal government lurches from crisis to crisis without doing anything that helps people … what better voter suppression is there?
Democrats need hope and change to motivate people to be active and vote. Republicans need no hope and no change to keep them tuned out. And they’re getting it.
That’s how we have the perverse polling we’ve seen: Just before the 2014 election, National Journal found only 9% approved of the job Congress was doing while 80% disapproved. In a Pew Research poll, disapproval of the Republican Party has been consistently running 68/23 neighborhood, compared to Democrats’ somewhat less unfavorable 60/32 split. And that led to increasing the Republican House majority and giving them control of the Senate too.
Why? National Journal has the answer: Americans wish the parties would co-operate more, but don’t believe they will. So:
More of those surveyed looked outside the political system for changes that might improve their lives.
What next? Whether or not we stop paying FBI agents next Friday, don’t expect Republicans in Congress to stop playing games with the government. And yes, it will drive down the popularity of Congress and of the Republican Party.
But so what? That dysfunction will also convince more Americans to lose faith in politics. More and more, voting will become that pointless thing old white people do. And why would you campaign for a candidate or donate to a campaign, unless you represent a special interest that needs to buy a favor?
Winning the House in 2010 gave Republicans the power to screw things up in Washington. And marginal voters responded to the screwed-up state of politics by staying home in 2014 and giving Republicans control of the Senate as well. Maybe they now have the power to screw things up on a grand enough scale to elect a Republican president in 2016.
But, then, surely, with control of both Congress and the White House, Republicans will have to take governing seriously. Won’t they?
Don’t count on it.
 It’s worth giving some thought to exactly what “responsible governing” would mean, so that it isn’t just thrown around as a buzzword.
In general, responsible governing means compromising to find a way forward that can be passed into law, rather than turning everything into a test of ideological purity. Finding a workable compromise is something a politician should be proud of, not a shameful act that can only be accomplished under the threat of a dire emergency.
Responsible governing also means being for something, rather than just criticizing everybody else’s solutions. Don’t like President Obama’s immigration plan? Fine. Tell me yours.
Above all, responsible governing means an end to hostage-taking, i.e., threatening to do something that nobody wants if you don’t get your way. Compromise means weighing what I want against what you want. But when one of us starts threatening to do things that nobody wants, we’re playing a different game entirely. The debt ceiling is the clearest example of a hostage — nobody really wants to see the United States default on its legal commitments — but nobody wants to see DHS shut down either.
It’s weird that the people most committed to ideological purity and most opposed to compromise claim to be representing the point of view of the Founders. The Founders were champion compromisers. The United States wouldn’t exist at all if they weren’t.
 Marco Rubio had an immigration plan, but has been making what Bloomberg Politics called an “apology tour” for daring to pass it through the Senate. If it had become law, hara-kari would have been his only honorable option.