The worst thing to happen to Republicans in the 2012 election cycle will not turn out to be Mitt Romney’s defeat. Nor will it be their party’s squandering of a great opportunity to take the Senate.
No, the worst thing to happen to the Republican Party in 2012 was holding onto the House. That victory will be their undoing. It will cause major damage to the Republican brand and to Republican party unity. In fact, that victory — not the setbacks mentioned above — may end up being the catalyst that finally forces a rethinking of the GOP strategy and approach.
I understand that sounds odd, but it’s true. Without control of the House, Republicans would not be suffering through their current existential crisis. Without GOP control, it would be the responsibility of majority Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi to provide the politically risky votes for tax hikes and spending cuts that are needed to correct our fiscal course.
The Republicans, in contrast, would be free to sit back, united, and do what they do well, which is preach the ideologically pure message that taxes must never be raised and entitlements are the whole problem. Come 2014, they could rally behind that message and make the Democrats pay at the ballot box.
History says that’s a great strategy. It’s exactly what Republicans did two decades ago, when Bill Clinton tackled a booming deficit by forcing through major tax hikes without a single Republican vote. While that proved successful as policy, the backlash led directly to the 1994 Gingrich Revolution and the first GOP House majority in 40 years.
This time, though, the Democrats don’t control the House. The Republicans do. They have the power and the votes, and thus they have the responsibility. And as the party in power in the House, the Republican leadership is somehow going to have to produce a significant number of votes in favor of higher taxes. They can scratch and claw and hem and haw and mumble about a coup d’etat against Boehner, but that’s how this chapter is destined to end.
And then what?
Those Republicans who took the practical and I would argue patriotic course of doing what was necessary will then engage in some rather heated “discussion”, we’ll call it, with those members who stayed the one true course, at least in their own minds. Again, you can already see that dynamic taking shape.
House Speaker John Boehner, for example, has thrown four of his fellow Republicans off of committees as a warning to others who might feel rebellious. Sen. Jim DeMint has lambasted what he calls “Speaker Boehner’s $800 billion tax hike.” Erick Erickson at RedState says the time has come for conservatives to “either start blowing stuff up or shut up.” Rush Limbaugh says the speaker is “conducting a seminar on how to surrender.”
And that rancor will only get worse. To millions in the GOP base, this is a betrayal of all that they’ve been taught to believe, committed by traitors to whom they looked as leaders.
I’ve seen suggestions on the left that this is all some sort of stage-managed, theatrical gamesmanship by conservatives to vent steam and prepare the base for the inevitable. It is not. A ban on tax hikes has been the core uniting issue for the Republicans for more than a generation, and it is being abandoned. It’s as if some strange and inconceivable combination of events had occurred that gave Democrats no choice but to produce votes in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade.
This is bone-deep stuff for the Republicans. This is who they are. This is 30-plus years of indoctrination running head on into brute fiscal reality, and the collision is going to create casualties.
Over the weekend, Grover Norquist predicted that this could lead to a newly reinvigorated Tea Party, and “Tea Party II is going to dwarf Tea Party I.” He may be right, in terms of Tea Party intensity if not size. It may also, simultaneously, lead to a resurgence among moderate Republicans unhappy with the extremism that the modern GOP has adopted and has talked itself into believing is the mainstream. Such splintering could produce any number of outcomes, and in the end I have no idea how you patch all that back together into a cohesive party.
But this is what happens when an inflexible, idealistic mantra perfectly suited for a party in opposition is actually implemented by a party that has power.
– Jay Bookman