The American democratic system of government was never intended to function with the extreme levels of partisan loyalty and rancor that have characterized the Obama years – the like of which has not been seen since the years immediately prior to the Civil War.
This largely explains why President Obama, who was solidly elected to the presidency twice, can’t get more of his agenda through Congress. After all, the Republicans have only controlled one house of Congress during three of his five years in office. Ronald Reagan managed to get a lot done, even though the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for his entire presidency.
But on every major issue, from increasing defense spending to cutting taxes, Reagan had allies in the Democratic Party. Today, Mr. Obama cannot count on a single Republican vote on any vital matter before the House, and scant few in the Senate, outside of immigration.
Even Nixon, at the nadir of his presidency, had more support from the opposition for parts of his agenda than Obama has today.
Is the fault Obama’s? Has his cold professorial style alienated Republicans? Has he not moderated his agenda enough?
Moderated his agenda? Republican-style tax cuts made up a third of his 2009 stimulus. His health-care plan was largely the Republican alternative to Hillarycare. His (and the Fed's) response to the global securities collapse has sent the stock market skyrocketing, and sent no Wall Streeters to jail – though at least one may be on his way. His immigration plan is very near to George W. Bush’s. His gun control plan in response to the horrific Newtown massacre was to the right of Reagan’s Brady Bill.
Sure, if a more experienced Washington insider had become president in 2009 – a Joe Biden or a Hillary Rodham Clinton – it’s possible a few more Republican votes would have been gettable, but not enough to change the outcome on any of Obama’s key agenda items.
And of course, Obama has misplayed his hand badly on occasion. His rhetoric at the last fiscal cliff, that allowing sequestration to take place would be a disaster for the country, hasn’t turned out to be true. The Republicans who proclaimed there was more than enough fat in every agency to withstand the first round of cuts without widespread suffering, have been vindicated. Specific vulnerable populations have been hurt by sequestration, but it is far from the disaster Obama foretold.
But these are minor parts of the story. Most of the responsibility – and possibility for progress – lies with Republicans, especially in the House. (Several key Senate Republicans have forged a compromise on immigration.)
GOP members have seen that simply hugging Obama once can virtually end a Republican career (see the former governor of Florida, Charlie Crist). A single vote with Obama has done the same for several Republicans in Congress.
The tea party movement, which represents not a third party but the most conservative, populist elements within the base of the GOP, has defeated almost no Democrats. But its interventions in Republican primaries have sent home many Republican incumbents.
There were early signs of extremists holding lawmaking – and even GOP agendas – hostage in Congress. In the mid-1990s, GOP House speakers began following The Hastert Rule, named after Speaker Dennis Hastert. It commands that the leadership of the GOP in the House allow no bill to come up for a vote that doesn’t have majority support in the Republican caucus. And it can be read as an early harbinger of the grassroots extremism ruling Republican politics.
Imagine the Reagan presidency if Democrats had adopted a similar rule. None of Reagan’s agenda items could have passed that test. Reagan would be remembered as a failed president.
That’s the real challenge that Obama is facing, one unlike what any other American president has ever faced. It’s a parliamentary level of almost uniform opposition, in a presidential system that cannot function without cooperation from the opposing party.
The tea party claims, above all else, to revere America’s Founding Founders. But the Founders were pragmatists who deeply opposed partisan politics. The Constitution they wrote makes no mention of, and no institutional allowance for, political parties.
The system they set up will not work if one party moves in lock step, following a rigid ideology. If the radical left had taken over the Democrats during the Eisenhower or Reagan presidencies, the results would be the same as we are seeing today.
One of two things will occur before mid-term elections in 2016. Republican conservatives who believe in the traditional American way of doing politics could start outvoting the tea party movement in Republican primaries. If that happens, the normal rhythm of compromise and contestation returns. Or, American politics is in for even more gridlock and fiscal cliffs. And Obama will be relegated to executive orders and speaking from the bully pulpit. (Note his current speech tour around the country.)
In the short term, it looks like America is in for the latter scenario – more gridlock. When Republicans and Obama sit down to negotiate the next budget as well as the debt ceiling, there is little reason to expect anything different from what has been seen lately.
But a hopeful sign of change could come soon in Wyoming. Hardline Republican Liz Cheney, the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has announced that she is running for Senate against three-term incumbent Mike Enzi – a fellow Republican. If Ms. Cheney, whose tea-party tinged stances promise even more confrontation and gridlock, can be beaten by solidly conservative incumbent Enzi in the August 2014 primary, it could be an indication that the battle for the soul of the GOP is finally shifting against the more radical elements. Other incumbent Republicans would then stop fearing tea party challenges so much.
The emerging battle between ultra conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and the GOP radicals in the Senate over Obamacare is another key data point to watch. If Republicans shut down the government this fall in a pointless attempt to get Obama to defund his health-care plan, the blame for the ensuing catastrophe would almost certainly land squarely on the Republicans, as it did in 1995. The tea party would finally have gone too far, and it might well cause a backlash within the GOP primaries against its kamikaze style of politics.
Then the traditional American style of Republican politics as practiced by Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan could return. And Congress could get back to the business of governing, rather than obstructing.
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.