It’s opposite day. After 17 solid months of naked obstructionism, of avoiding even a token nod toward finding solutions, of methodically carrying out a stated plan to block anything the White House proposes, the Republican Party is today full of ideas.
Republican leaders gathered at a hardware store in Sterling, Va.—a symbolically safe 20 miles from the Capitol—to deliver “A Pledge to America” about how they’ll lead if given control of Congress. The document harks back to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America. But while Gingrich’s vows were cobbled together in the proverbial back rooms of Washington, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have put on populist drag to unveil theirs. Their most animating policy concern may be additional tax relief for the top one percent of earners, but they’re still down with the people, you see.
The Pledge’s opening statement is full of absurdly grand language that aims to drive the populist point home.
“In a self governing society, the only bulwark against the power of the state is the consent of the governed, and regarding the policies of the current government, the governed do not consent,” it declares. “An unchecked executive, a compliant legislature, and an overreaching judiciary have combined to thwart the will of the people and overturn their votes and their values, striking down long-standing laws and institutions and scorning the deepest beliefs of the American people.”
No, that’s not a description of the George W. Bush years, in which Republican legislators helped a proudly unchecked executive flout the law and willfully deceive the public, all in order to abuse its most grave authority—the power to make war. Nor is it a comment on the overreaching judiciary that installed Bush in the first place. Rather, the Pledge makes these claims about stuff like ending a tax cut for the super rich and expanding a private-run health insurance market.
“We pledge to dedicate ourselves to the task of reconnecting our highest aspirations to the permanent truths of our founding by keeping faith with the values our nation was founded on,” it reads. “This is our Pledge to America.”
All of this loony language would be little more than fodder for John Stewart if not for the fact that Boehner is as likely as not to be the speaker of the House come November. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein offers succinct, damning analysis of the actual policy proposals in the Pledge—primarily, extending Bush’s tax cuts and repealing Obama’s health insurance reforms. Klein writes:
The first would increase the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years, and many trillions of dollars more after that. The second would increase the deficit by more than $100 billion over the next 10 years, and many trillions of dollars more after that. Nothing in the document comes close to paying for these two proposals, and the authors know it.
The authors also know it doesn’t matter, because nobody but journalists and operatives will actually read and digest the policy section of this document. It’s more of a reactionary manifesto than a white paper. Its goal is to emotionally bridge Tea Party paranoia with independent-voter frustration and create a winning coalition.
But the Republican Party’s core problem is that those two groups are unbridgeable. The independent voters who have abandoned President Obama and the Democrats in droves are more Velma Hart than Joe the Plumber. Independents wanted change in 2008 and haven’t gotten it, because the president believed they were more interested in comity than results. Now they’re in a throw-the-bums-out kind of mood. That’s precisely the environment Republicans hoped to create when they announced, as far back as early 2009, that they would refuse to work with the Democrats in any way. They kept their word, and Obama didn’t make them pay for it.
So in November, the president’s party will likely pay for it instead. The Republicans’ obstruction will have worked, in the short term. But the GOP faces a deep long term problem: Their ideas, once applied, will neither lift the economic fog nor resonate with independent voters. All the populist schtick in the world won’t change that fact.
Over the past 17 months, McConnell and Boehner have worked to harness the Tea Party’s rightwing populism without becoming consumed by it. In the process, they’ve crowded out any voice that could resonate beyond their white southern and western strongholds. And as a result, the electoral map of 2008 has not changed fundamentally. Republicans may be the incidental beneficiaries of independent voters’ frustration with Obama this year, but that doesn’t make them a viable political party.
It does, however, make them an effectively destructive presence in Washington. Which means we can be certain they’ll continue playing their obstructionist role after November, whether in the majority or minority. The only question is whether the president will reclaim the reformist mantle voters like Velma Hart gave him. If not, the next two years will look an awful lot like the past two—both parties doing nothing while millions more Americans fall into poverty.