Insiders in the Obama administration have long described the political environment they face as one in which the GOP opposition, especially in the House, will pretty much automatically come out against anything the president proposes. To hear them tell it, it doesn’t even matter if Republicans used to favor the same position. As Exhibit A, there’s the erstwhile conservative support for an individual mandate to buy health insurance. That was the Heritage Foundation’s preferred approach to health care reform in the early 1990s. Yet the conservative behemoth thoroughly repudiated its position when it emerged as the centerpiece of Obama’s health care reform.
The president himself got into the act recently as he unveiled a proposal for a corporate tax overhaul: “I don't want to go through the same old arguments where I propose an idea and the Republicans just say no because it’s my idea,” he said. Administration officials have also claimed that some Republicans have privately expressed support for compromise but have been cowed into silence by the party’s right wing. If there are indeed such creatures, they have the interesting distinction of being regarded as craven and callow by both the right wing of the GOP (for toadying to the White House in secret) and pretty much the entirety of the Democratic Party (for toadying to the Tea Party in public).
The White House’s point is that everything is so politicized these days that nothing much can get done. If opposition obstructionism is so unmodulated that our poor president can’t even embrace GOP positions without having the GOP immediately discard them—well, what can you do?
Which, come to think of it, sounds like just the kind of argument you would want to make if you couldn’t get anything done—or didn’t want to try. Some members of the House GOP conference are certainly petulant in tone and are vigorously partisan to boot, but the White House line suggests that they are mostly opportunistic and cynical in their policy druthers, taking as their lodestone and first principle the need to oppose anything Obama favors. Yet the clear implication here is that most members of the House GOP are short on conviction and ideological rigor—which (and I’m sorry to be the one to break this news) is just the opposite of current Washington reality, whether you favor their principled stand or think they are out of their gourds.
It’s probably fair to say that presidents and their White House retinue of grandees, swells, and wonks tend to see the Oval Office as the fixed point around which all else revolves. That the White House has an Obama-centric view of the world should surprise no one. And there’s no denying that partisan GOP animosity toward Obama is every bit as heartfelt as Democratic animosity toward George W. Bush. That obstruction of Obama’s agenda has been part of the GOP’s strategy isn’t news. But if we really must reduce our explanation for current Washington politics to one independent variable, partisan polarization would probably have to contend with ideological polarization for pride of place.
The two are closely related, of course, thanks to Democrats and Republicans having sorted themselves out, with vanishingly few liberals in the ranks of the latter and conservatives among the former. Republicans tend not to understand that most Democrats do not regard Obama as especially liberal, and frankly, they don’t care; most of Obama’s policy preferences are plenty liberal enough for Republicans to oppose them on ideological grounds.
The Heritage position on the individual mandate is at most the exception that proves the rule. I remember Stuart Butler, Heritage’s domestic policy majordomo, mirthfully reminiscing in the late 1990s about how a rival conservative policy outfit regarded the Heritage plan with its individual mandate as “sheerest Bolshevism.” The Heritage health care plan was always highly controversial among conservatives. Given that conservatives (including Butler and Heritage) are now entirely unwilling to tolerate a proposal such as the individual mandate, it’s probably fair to conclude that conservatives have moved farther to the right since 1993. But the uniform opposition to Obama’s approach to health care reform is therefore better understood as ideological than as merely partisan.
It’s also worth noting that when Bill Clinton found himself having to do business with a GOP Congress in 1995-96, he chucked all pretense of an agenda that would satisfy the progressive wing of his own party in favor of “triangulation”—presenting himself as the Aristotelian mean between two extremes. In practical terms, that meant agreeing to end the welfare entitlement and cut taxes—which is to say, accommodating GOP priorities. Democratic Party politics has changed considerably since then: The centrist “New Democrat” strain Clinton represented has been absorbed into the party’s more left-leaning mainstream. So Obama has neither inclination nor need to cooperate with an agenda that could command a majority of the House GOP. (In fact, when he did so in 2010 over extending the Bush tax cuts for two years, most of his party howled in protest.) Better, perhaps, to paper over the ideological chasm by painting the GOP as knee-jerk partisan reactionaries.
And yet: about that corporate tax reform proposal. True, the GOP response was initially dismissive. But is that the end of the matter? Insofar as cutting the corporate tax rate in a revenue-neutral fashion by eliminating loopholes has long been a GOP policy goal, maybe this is Obama offering an accommodation after all. True, Obama has in mind a deal that produces some one-off revenue as corporations move big stacks of offshore dollars back home at a cut rate, and he wants to spend it. But the GOP could probably get what it wants on reform in exchange for splitting the short-term windfall between deficit reduction and, say, infrastructure block grants to the states.
I’m not sure how progressives would respond to such a deal. But if you couldn’t get a clear majority of House Republicans on board for a deal to cut corporate tax rates, maybe partisanship is the independent variable after all.
Tod Lindberg (@todlindberg) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.