The last election, rather than the next, is the force driving Republican national politics. Carried by its momentum, the party in Congress and state legislatures is focused entirely on spending cuts. Most of the action so far is in Washington, where the huge House freshman class has the wider GOP in its thrall.
The challenges that this dynamic will pose started to become clear this week. So many House Republicans defected on a vote to extend spending authority for three more weeks that Democrats had to help pass it. Fifty-four Republicans, almost 40 percent of them freshmen, snubbed the party leadership and joined a majority of Democrats in voting against the continuing resolution. The Democrats voted no because they found the proposed new cuts of $6 billion too severe. Republicans, on the other hand, voted no because they thought the hits were too mild or because they objected to the drip-by-drip approach, or both.
Speaker John Boehner found himself in the wobbly position of having to rely on Democratic yeas to pass a bill to avoid a government shutdown. He is left with an ugly choice: Compromise with Democrats or capitulate to his own caucus. The weakness of Boehner’s position becomes clearer when you examine the pattern of defections in Tuesday’s vote. The GOP dissenters, for the most part, were not candidates in marginal districts, worried about their chances in 2012. It is more the opposite. Forty-six of them represent districts that John McCain won in 2008, and 29 of them are from districts that he won by at least 55 percent.
They are not running scared but standing firm, and no one can say different: no George Bush calling for compassionate conservatism; no Bob Dole or other orthodox fiscal conservative soft-pedaling tax cuts. Boehner’s problem is not the pull of the middle but the energized and unopposed forces on the right.
Tuesday’s vote actually understated his quandary. There are more defections where those came from. As embarrassing as the no votes were, many of those who voted for the CR pledged that it was the last time. Of the GOP’s yes votes, 133 represent districts that McCain won; 41 of them are freshmen. If they choose to defy the party next time, Boehner can do little about it.
So, expect a more confrontational tone from the Republican side. From the Democratic side, expect the same. When the House passed a funding resolution on March 1 to keep the government operating for two weeks, 104 Democrats voted for it and 85 against. This week, for the three-week extension, those numbers were reversed: 85 yeas and 104 nays. Among Democrats, the switchers were also members with safe seats. Of the 19 new no votes, 17 were cast by members in districts where Barack Obama won with at least 55 percent of the vote.
The bases are asserting themselves. “Let’s remember that on November 2, the people of Virginia’s 5th District and the people across this country sent a message to Washington,” Rep. Robert Hurt, a freshman from central Virginia, declared on the House floor. “The message was urgent, it was clear, and it was loud. The message sent was that now is the time to stop the government spending, stop the government borrowing, and stop the raid on our children’s future.”
There you have it: the entire Republican agenda, boiled down to its essence. The no-compromise approach is coming from Hurt and other new members whose single-mindedness is likely to be problematic for a party looking to craft a message of broader appeal going into the 2012 presidential cycle. Already, polling suggests that voters would like a more measured approach than that espoused by some in the freshman class.
A moderating influence in this struggle might eventually come from the presidential field, but the field has yet to take shape — and for the most part remains silent. Four years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama were already engaged in elaborate posturing, all trying to finesse their positions on the war in Iraq. And, instantly, some of the Hill’s most liberal Democrats were expressing disappointment that their candidates had gone soft on the war. “We’ve got a fake debate going on inside the Democratic Party right now on the war,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio complained. “People are saying they are for peace, and they are voting to keep the war going.”
No such moderating pressure is yet forthcoming in the GOP. The mutiny on government funding this week went way beyond the freshman class, but — no question — the 87 new House Republicans have redefined what it means to be a contemporary GOP conservative. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy says that the freshman class is the key to the party’s success and that its members are unified and committed to the budget-cutting mission. “Some people will lose [election] over some of what we do,” McCarthy admitted, placidly.
It will be interesting to see how far up the national ticket they expect this noble sacrifice to reach.