It's a weird moment right now for the GOP. On one hand, the base has rarely been more riled up—and understandably so. For the past year, party leaders have told rank-and-file Republicans that the passage of Obamacare would represent a kind of Nazi-Bolshevik Armageddon, and that they must band together as honest, freedom-loving Americans to do everything in their power to stop the "Democrat [sic] Party" from destroying the country. But now Obamacare has passed, and the final reconciliation bill is heading to the Oval Office for the president's signature. So right-wingers are angry, and scared, and a few are even calling members of Congress to say things like, "you baby-killing motherf--ker … I hope you bleed out your ass, get cancer, and die."
On the other hand, the bill passed. Republicans did do everything in their power to kill it, and yet, here we are.Obstructionism? Didn't work. Game over. And now Republicans have nothing to show for their efforts—except a massive new law that's more liberal than it would've been if they'd participated in the process and pushed President Obama to the right. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum put it earlier this week,"This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none …Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise—without weighing so heavily on small business—without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law … We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat."
So it would seem that the GOP has a decision to make: Do they continue to block the Dems at every pass in the hope that just saying no will inspire the base to show up en masse in November? Or do they come to the table, strike some deals, steer Obama's agenda in a more conservative direction—and then try to take credit for that?
The first strategy may be safer, but I doubt it's smarter. Before Obamacare became the law of the land, the "Newt Gingrich Circa 1994" approach—voters won't reelect a governing party that can't pass anything—made perfect sense.But now that the Democrats have passed something (i.e., the largest piece of social legislation in half a century), that argument is irrelevant. Sure, you can throw temper tantrums, refuse to work after 2 p.m., sue the government, or, like Mitt Romney, try to spearhead a (somewhat quixotic) nationwide effort to "repeal and replace" the new law. The 23 percent of Americans who currently identify as Republicans will probably be pleased. But in the seven months between now and Election Day, as other issues take center stage, new benefits kick in, and passions cool (one poll shows 49 percent now calling health reform "a good thing," compared with 40 percent who say the opposite), it will become increasingly difficult to appeal to the other three quarters of the electorate—which encompasses the 23 percent of voters who cast ballots for John McCain in 2008, but now call themselves independents—by fixating on Obamacare and blocking everything else the Dems propose. Especially when those proposals are things that most voters really want Washington to get cracking on, like financial reform, teacher accountability, and job creation. At the end of the day, you can't win elections with only 23 percent of the electorate on your side—no matter how fired up that 23 percent is.
Which is why I think the GOP would be better off playing ball, at least on a few handpicked issues. With only 59 Senate votes—and Obamacare's seamier shenanigans still fresh in voters' minds—Democrats can no longer pass legislation on a strictly partisan basis. They need to negotiate. If Republicans can win significant concessions on jobs, education, and financial reform,they'll actually have something to sell the conservative half of the electorate. "Yes, Obama overreached on health care," they could say. "But right now, the important thing is making sure he doesn't drag us deeper into the abyss. That's why we pushed for and passed tougher teacher accountability measures, stricter restraints on Wall Street, and a jobs bill that will get small businesses hiring again—without government meddling. We took weak liberal proposals and transformed them into strong conservative laws. And if you hire us in November,there will be more where that came from. Of course, we promise to repeal and replace Obamacare as soon as we can. But you have to put us back in power first." In other words, keep stoking the anti-Obamacare fires—but accomplish something that will appeal to less extreme, more independent conservatives in the meantime.
Already, there are signs from Washington that a few Republican leaders are questioning the party's "obstruct and delay" strategy. Earlier this week, for example, Sen. Bob Corker(R-Tenn.), whose financial-reform talks with Democrat Chris Dodd collapsed after GOP leadership refused to rally around an emerging bipartisan deal, complained to reporters that his party made a "major strategic error" by allowing Dodd and the Democrats to own the legislation."This is so unlike the health-care debate," he said. "I don't think [Republicans] realize that this is an issue that almost every American wants to see passed. There'll be a lot of pressure on every senator and every House member"—meaning that, ultimately, some Republicans may not be able to avoid voting for the new, more liberal version of the bill, even though the credit will accrue to the Democrats alone. Bad policy, bad politics.
According to Senate Democrats, Corker isn't the only Republican who's expressed interest in playing ball. As Dodd has put it,"I think, frankly, there are a number of Republicans who went along with the strategy of 'just say no' who were never really happy with it,but if it worked they would go along. [But] they saw it fail. And now they've had enough of it and they really want to be involved in crafting things."Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) concurs. "There have been a couple of[Republican] senators who have [privately] said sometimes … that 'this is pointless, I don’t know why we’re doing this,' " she recently told The Hill.
Are we on the verge of a new golden age of bipartisan comity? No way. For one thing, the American Enterprise Institute canned David Frum after he questioned GOP obstructionism. But I'm hoping in the coming months that at least a few Republicans have the courage to get back to the business of governing. It would certainly be good for the country. It may even be good for them.