Maybe I’m wrong — it has certainly been known to happen — but I’m thinking that these next six months could prove to be the most interesting and consequential six months of political theater seen in Washington in a long time. In fact, in terms of melodrama and conflict, it may rival or even exceed the 1995 standoff between President Bill Clinton and the Gingrich Republicans.
The recently concluded 112th Congress resolved nothing. As rough as it seemed at times, it proved to be two years of posturing between partners who weren’t quite confident enough to push things to conclusion. Members of both parties lacked both the courage to cut a big deal and the guts to have a knock-down, drag-out fight about it.
But the 113th Congress may be different. Explosive issues that have been put off time and time again — including immigration reform and entitlement spending — can’t be postponed much longer. Partisan and personal resentments that have long simmered seem ready to come to full boil. Confrontation is in the air — between Republicans and Democrats, between the House and Senate, between Congress and the president, between red state and blue state and even within the two political parties.
For example, I’d give House Speaker John Boehner a 50/50 chance of still holding that position come July, and that may be optimistic. His departure could come in any number of ways, from an internal caucus rebellion to a voluntary resignation in frustration. That’s because the man has been handed an impossible job, trapped between his constitutional obligation as speaker to make government work, at least at some basic level, and a Republican caucus that believes it has much to gain politically and in policy by ensuring that government falters.
As events play out, you may begin to see fractures emerge within the Democratic Party as well. For years, the antics and extremism of their Republican colleagues have united Democrats and allowed them to paper over divisions within their own ranks. They haven’t had to make any hard decisions as a party, and that may change in the months ahead, particularly if President Obama reaches some kind of deal with Republicans on the budget. Because as any student of political history knows, unity has always been a rare and temporary phenomenon with Democrats.
This all sounds a bit dangerous, and it is. Conventional wisdom holds that bitter confrontation is something best avoided in politics, and that compromise and bipartisanship are better models for good governance. Most of the time, that conventional wisdom is probably correct. But I’m not sure that’s the case under current circumstances.
At its most basic, politics is a process by which theories are tested and realities are sifted from illusions. It is disciplined by failure. Politics is also a crudely Darwinian process. At some point, you win or you lose. Decisions get made and problems get solved — one way or the other — when you have clear lines of authority and power. Once those things have been established, you have the ground rules that make bipartisanship and compromise possible.
Such lines do not exist within the rambunctious House Republican caucus. They do not exist in the relationship between House Republicans and the rest of the constitutional structure in Washington, and that explains a lot about the system’s dysfunction. But given the important battles that loom, and the apparently growing hunger for confrontation in some quarters, they may become a lot more clear.
– Jay Bookman