Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The loyal opposition opposes itself


BACK IN the day – in the days and weeks after the November election – it all seemed so clear, so simple, so obvious where things were going. The Democrats — wounded, bloodied and chastened by a midterm election that overwhelmingly rejected them — would come back to a new Congress run by a newly energized Republican majority flush with success, bound to govern as a unified force and ready to mop up the marble floors of Congress with whatever was left of the Democrats. It was all going to be different. It was going to be better.

That was the script, anyway. What a difference a few months makes. After coming back to Washington with a purported agenda to continue blocking legislation from the Obama White House while advancing the GOP agenda — especially on immigration — it’s all different.

The Republican congressional majority may be a majority by party name, but the internal divisions that have plagued them for years – divisions largely hinging on old litmus tests of loyalty and ideological purity – show no signs of letting up.

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The latest example of this played out on Friday. The GOP-majority House of Representatives approved a stopgap funding bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security up and running ... for a week. It’s the same bill passed by the GOP-majority Senate that had already acquiesced to Democrats’ demands to keep President Obama’s immigration policies intact. The funding for DHS remains at current levels, with no layoffs or cutbacks in that vital agency, arguably the most important and public-facing federal agency in the wake of 9/11.

The Republicans’ willingness to knuckle under on the DHS bill, bowing to Democratic demands, puts the lie to the wall of resistance the GOP was prepared to be after the November election. So does the opposition that Speaker of the House John Boehner, a long time in the crosshairs of conservatives, faced from Republicans, who rejected his bid for a three-week stopgap bill — preferring the short-leash option instead.

Since he was re-elected Speaker in January, Yahoo News reported, Boehner “has had to rely on Democratic help in passing the funding bill, after a three-week funding bill was voted down 203-224, with 52 Republicans voting against Boehner. He’s found it routinely difficult to line up a majority on any given bill, especially if the topic is a contentious issue like immigration, education or abortion. Many Republicans campaigned for re-election last fall on promises to stop Obama on immigration, and their inability to do so is infuriating to conservatives.”

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THE SAME thing happened earlier, on Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Woodstock (or the Coachella) of American conservatives. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who’s made a career of championing his independent political spirit, often to the consternation of his fellow Republicans, took to the microphone to declare himself a “disruptive app” on the party landscape, and to condemn his party’s elder statesmen.

Cruz has a reputation of hewing to his principles, regardless of how it endangers the fortunes of his party in particular and the fortunes of the country in general. We all remember the utterly disastrous 2013 government shutdown Cruz presided over, and the one that happened about a year later.

He’s swung for the fences and whiffed before — on defunding Obamacare, and pushing back against the immigration policy. Now, though, Cruz may be trying to straddle the fence on the DHS matter. On Wednesday, Cruz indicated he wouldn’t block an agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders to proceed with the bill to keep DHS operational. The same damn bill he condemned a day earlier at CPAC. Will the real Ted Cruz please stand up, please stand up?

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This latest evidence of bifurcated Republican identity showed up on Thursday. That was when some GOP lawmakers, standing on conservatives’ laissez-faire corporate principles, pushed back against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to establish new net neutrality rules that seek to ensure all Internet traffic is uniformly regulated.

Those Republicans conflicted with others of the party, who hope to hash out a compromise with congressional Democrats — imagine that! — amounting to a “resolution of disapproval,” an administrative expression of their discontent with the FCC’s sweeping ruling, which treats the Internet as a utility.

“Right now, it’s just a function of playing this out and seeing if there are any Dems that are willing to play ball, and then we’ll go to plan B,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told Politico last week. But right now, plan A is still legislating on this.”

The proposed resolution of disapproval is a down-in-the-weeds issue, and practically speaking it reflects a relatively minor difference between Republicans on the issue. But it’s just one more thing that points to a divergence of opinion in the GOP where there shouldn’t be one — one more proof of a disconnect we were led to believe ended last Election Day.

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FRANKLY, AND despite all the talk about a new Republican identity forged in the heat of last year’s election battle, we might have expected this. Our Congress, a legislative body long choked by pettiness and lassitude, has habits that are hard to break. But the difference goes beyond lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The matter of immunization is one of the hot-button divisions announcing itself in the slow but steady runup to the 2016 presidential election. On Feb. 2, Bloomberg Politics reported on where two possible GOP contenders for the nomination stand on the matter: opposing sides.

"Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society,” said Dr. Ben Carson, a well-known neurosurgeon and conservative speaker, wrote in a statement to Bloomberg Politics’ Steven Yacchino.

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“Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”

But that don’t quite jibe with where Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is on the issue. “I'm not anti-vaccine at all,” he told Laura Ingraham recently. “But particularly, most of them ought to be voluntary. What if you have someone not wanting to take the smallpox vaccine and it ruins it for everybody else? I think there are times where there can be some rules, but for the most part, it ought to be voluntary.”

There’s more. The wave of laws governing recreational marijuana has created a split between younger and older Republicans. On Friday, the Pew Research Center released a survey that found that 63 percent of millennialls who self-identify as Republicans favor pot’s legalization. It’s a marked departure with their older counterparts: the survey found that 47 percent of older Republicans (35-50) support legal pot.

The same generational divide within the Republican party shows up in a Pew survey on marriage equality, too. That’s especially important when you consider that Republican millennialls are hardly the party’s biggest cohort in the first place.

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WHAT MAKES this so important, what makes these fissures in a presumably rock-solid Republican identity so remarkable is that it shows us how little has changed since the election vis-à-vis the ethical litmus tests the GOP imposes on itself. What Cruz called “a powerful repudiation of the Obama presidency” on Election Night may be anything but.

The outcome of the 2014 midterm election was held up as nothing less than a sea change, a watershed, the high-water mark when the GOP, flush with panoramic victories in the Senate and the statehouses (even picking up blue states they lost in 2012), would reorder its priorities and stop the infighting that’s characterized the party for years. Forbes.com practically crowed: “Republican Victory Is a Rejection of President Obama.”

We can expect a certain amount of unanimity in the GOP ranks — stopping Obama judicial nominees, for example, or continuing to put a brake on the White House agenda in general. But that predictable expression of Republican unity has more to do with what they oppose than what they support. And there’s no unity within their ranks on that.

That’s bad enough happening at any time. But it’s beginning to reveal itself in these, the months before Republicans have to get serious about their presidential hopefuls, and just as serious about proving they’ve got what it takes to govern the country from the White House in less than two years time.

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“We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” said Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell to TIME the day after the election — and shortly before he was anointed Senate Majority Leader. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.” Imagine that.

McConnell was obviously referring to the endless skirmishes with the Democrats. What he said was a magnanimous expression of the need to work with President Obama and congressional Democrats in order to get something done. Less often spoken since then is something that may be just as intractable: the idea that Republicans would have to work with Republicans to get the same result.

In November, the Republican Party thought it had a gun to Obama’s head, legislatively speaking. But unsettled party divisions in the face of a changing national electorate suggest that the Republicans may have the Democrats right where the Democrats want them.

Image credits: GOP cracked logo: via The Huffington Post. Boehner: AP/Evan Vucci. Cruz: Senate TV. Marijuana support among millennial Republicans chart: Pew Research Center. 

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