What the Mustache of Understanding doesn’t understand is that there is no reasoning with the Republican Party. There is a very narrow window in the Senate where certain very limited things can be done. It is possible to pass bills on our most pressing issues when the Democratic Party is united and willing to settle for whatever it is that one Republican will allow. Sometimes that Republican is Scott Brown, sometimes it is Olympia Snowe, and sometimes it is Susan Collins. On a few issues where one or two Democrats don’t feel like playing team-ball, all three of them can be convinced to support something. In very rare cases, Dick Lugar, Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Kit Bond, or George Voinovich can be convinced to come on board (but only if they have company). There is no issue, however, where seven Republicans can be convinced to make up for the lack of loyalty of six Democrats. The merits of the thing don’t matter. The Republicans will not do the Democrats’ work for them. When the leadership says to oppose something, there are only really three members who are consistently willing to consider bucking their advice. And, in the cases where something passes over the objections of the Republican leadership, they immediately call for the bill’s repeal because it is the most tyrannical overstep of federal authority in memory.
The main reason for this situation is ideological rigidity. There are only three moderates on social and financial policy in the Republican caucus (there are a few more on foreign affairs and the environment). But there two other major reasons. The first was reported on in March by the New York Times’s Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney.
Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.
That article was written in the context of the battle over health care, but it can be applied to everything.
On the major issues — not just health care, but financial regulation and the economic stimulus package, among others — Mr. McConnell has held Republican defections to somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, allowing him to slow the Democratic agenda if not defeat aspects of it. He has helped energize the Republican base, expose divisions among Democrats and turn the health care fight into a test of the Democrats’ ability to govern.
“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”
It’s a strategy that depends on total warfare and absolute opposition, which, in turn, depends on the demonization of the president and any policies he proposes. Obama said as much to the Republican Caucus when he spoke to them at their retreat in January:
I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me.
I mean, the fact of the matter is is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, “This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.”
And I — I would just say that we have to think about tone.
It’s not just on your side, by the way. It’s — it’s on our side as well. This is part of what’s happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.
The president mentioned the third reason we face this situation, which is that the Republicans have been whittled down to such a small minority that their still-existing members are much more vulnerable to defeat in a primary from the right than in a general election from the left. Ordinarily, a president can lean on vulnerable members of the other party. But there are only three Senate Republicans up for election in the fall who are thought to be vulnerable: Richard Burr of North Carolina, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Senator Burr seems ideologically opposed to moving to the middle on anything, so his fate will be decided by whether North Carolinians like the Party of No strategy or not. Sen. Grassley felt enough pressure to vote for the Wall Street reforms. Sen. Vitter’s problems are ethical, not political, and he faces a primary that will keep him far on the right for the remainder of the legislative year. You can’t bully someone when a bigger bully is standing on the other side of them. Without the ability to strike credible fear into the Republicans in the Senate, there is no moving them. They are pursuing a strategy.
“We came in shellshocked,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “There was sort of a feeling of ‘every man for himself.’ Mitch early on in this session came up with a game plan to make us relevant with 40 people. He said if we didn’t stick together on big things, we wouldn’t be relevant.”
It’s a deeply cynical strategy, but it’s working fairly well in a political sense. On the one hand, Obama has yet to fail to pass any bills that he has gotten behind and has succeeded in passing what is objectively the most sweeping progressive agenda in nearly half a century. But those bills had to be watered down to the point that some Republican and all Democrats supported them, making them less effective and less popular. He has not been allowed to stimulate the economy sufficiently to create robust job growth and the Republicans are benefiting mightily from that. He hasn’t been able to close Guantanamo. He wasn’t able to confirm Dawn Johnsen to the OLC, and he has dozens of other nominees in limbo.
He’s also reached the end of what he can pass with only two or three Republicans. He cannot pass climate legislation or immigration reform without at least a half dozen Senate Republicans lending him their support, and it won’t happen because the Republicans have been pursuing a strategy that they perceive to be working for them politically. And, at this point, they’ve poisoned the well so badly with their base that they don’t have the freedom to vote with the president on major legislation without imperiling their political careers. It’s like the Party of No strategy is the Hotel California. Once you enter into that kind of total warfare, you can never leave.
So, Friedman’s advice is nice and reasonable, but it will fall on deaf ears. In fact, he’s wasting his breath. He should use his energy to explain what I just explained and tell his readers why we need to win the senate elections this fall and/or do away with/amend the filibuster that allows McConnell to ravage our political landscape.