Will the Kamikaze Caucus Doom the GOP?

When Congress devolves into perpetual conflict, each party’s more militant voices gain influence at the expense of its deal-makers.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 27: Tea Party activist Ronald Kirby, of Alexandria, Va., holds a one man vigil outside of the Capitol near the Senate steps on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, to encourage Senators to defund Obamacare. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

When con­gres­sion­al in­siders say John Boehner could lose his speak­er­ship if he moves to end the con­front­a­tions over the fed­er­al budget and debt ceil­ing, it pro­vokes an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: How could he tell?

Em­battled throughout his nearly three-year ten­ure, Boehner has nev­er seemed more a SINO — that’s Speak­er In Name Only — than dur­ing this crisis. He’s al­lowed the House Re­pub­lic­ans’ most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers to re­peatedly es­cal­ate the con­front­a­tion des­pite his doubts about their strategy, if that word ap­plies. At times lately, Boehner has hin­ted he might isol­ate the Right by build­ing a co­ali­tion of Demo­crats and more prag­mat­ic Re­pub­lic­ans be­fore al­low­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to de­fault on its debts. But, so far, he’s ef­fect­ively thrown up his hands and sur­rendered the wheel to the Right’s in­sa­ti­able de­mand for col­li­sion.

It’s an­oth­er ques­tion wheth­er any­one else could have done bet­ter at tam­ing the un­ruly pas­sion of the tea-party-al­lied caucus in both cham­bers that has goaded the GOP in­to this brawl. One les­son of the gruel­ing stan­doff, as I noted re­cently, is that when Con­gress de­volves in­to per­petu­al con­flict, each party’s more mil­it­ant voices gain in­flu­ence at the ex­pense of its deal-makers.

That dy­nam­ic is evid­ent in a Demo­crat­ic Party that has co­alesced around a hard-line, no-ne­go­ti­ations strategy meant to last­ingly del­e­git­im­ize threats of gov­ern­ment shut­down or de­fault as a lever for ex­act­ing policy con­ces­sions. “We have to break the cycle of this, and it has to hap­pen now,” in­sists one seni­or White House aide.

But the shift of power from the cen­ter to the fringe has been most vivid in a Re­pub­lic­an Party that pre­cip­it­ated this clash. Al­though Boehner’s hap­less per­form­ance surely has iron­fis­ted pre­de­cessors like Joe Can­non and Sam Ray­burn spin­ning, it’s not as if Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, des­pite their own abund­ant doubts, have more suc­cess­fully con­trolled the most bel­li­ger­ent voices in their own ranks.

The reas­on the most con­front­a­tion­al con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have seized the party’s con­trols is that they are most dir­ectly chan­nel­ing the bot­tom­less ali­en­a­tion cours­ing through much of the GOP’s base. That doesn’t mean Re­pub­lic­an voters have broadly en­dorsed the party’s spe­cif­ic tac­tics: In this week’s United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, even GOP voters split fairly closely on the wis­dom of seek­ing con­ces­sions on Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law through the debt and spend­ing show­downs (while al­most every oth­er group pre­pon­der­antly op­posed that idea).

But the kami­kaze caucus, by seek­ing to block the pres­id­ent by any means ne­ces­sary, is re­flect­ing the back-to-the wall des­per­a­tion evid­ent among grass­roots Re­pub­lic­ans con­vinced that Obama and his urb­an­ized, ra­cially di­verse sup­port­ers are trans­form­ing Amer­ica in­to something un­re­cog­niz­able. Al­though those voters are split over wheth­er the cur­rent tac­tics will work, they are united in res­ist­ing any ac­com­mod­a­tion with Obama.

Vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg, who has stud­ied the two parties’ co­ali­tions since the 1980s, re­cently con­duc­ted sev­er­al fo­cus groups with GOP voters that probed this pas­sion. He con­cluded that the roar­ing sense of em­battle­ment among the al­most all-white tea party and evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­an voters cent­ral to the GOP base draws on in­ter­twined ideo­lo­gic­al, elect­or­al, and ra­cial fears.

These core con­ser­vat­ive voters, Green­berg wrote re­cently, fear “that big gov­ern­ment is meant to cre­ate rights and de­pend­ency and elect­or­al sup­port from mostly minor­it­ies who will re­ward the Demo­crat­ic Party with their votes.” Much like Mitt Rom­ney’s mus­ings about the 47 per­cent, these voters see an omin­ous cycle of Demo­crats prom­ising be­ne­fits “to in­crease de­pend­ency” among mostly minor­ity voters who em­power them to win elec­tions and then provide yet more be­ne­fits (like a path to cit­izen­ship for im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally). Obama’s health care law looms to them as the tip­ping point to­ward a per­man­ent Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age built on de­pend­ency and demo­graph­ic change.

Green­berg’s ana­lys­is echoes the find­ings of oth­er schol­ars, such as Har­vard so­ci­olo­gist Theda Skoc­pol, whose stud­ies have con­cluded that the tea party’s most ar­dent pri­or­ity is re­du­cing gov­ern­ment trans­fer pay­ments to those it con­siders un­deserving. Earli­er United Tech­no­lo­gies/NJ Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion polling has found that the older and non­col­lege whites now cent­ral to the GOP co­ali­tion mostly see health care re­form as a pro­gram that will be­ne­fit the poor rather than people like them (though, in fact, many work­ing-class whites lack in­sur­ance).

House GOP lead­ers flail­ing for an exit strategy this week are again sug­gest­ing broad ne­go­ti­ations that will con­strain en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams such as Medi­care. But our latest polling shows older and down­scale whites over­whelm­ingly res­ist changes in Medi­care or So­cial Se­cur­ity, which they con­sider be­ne­fits they have earned — and poin­tedly dis­tin­guish from trans­fer pro­grams.

Those find­ings sug­gest that the real fight un­der way isn’t primar­ily about the size of gov­ern­ment but rather who be­ne­fits from it. The fren­zied push from House Re­pub­lic­ans to de­rail Obama­care, shelve im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and slash food stamps all point to­ward a stead­ily es­cal­at­ing con­front­a­tion between a Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion re­volving around older whites and a Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion anchored on the bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion of young­er non­whites. Un­less the former re­cog­nizes its self-in­terest in up­lift­ing the lat­ter — the fu­ture work­force that will fund en­ti­tle­ments for the eld­erly — even today’s ti­tan­ic budget battle may be re­membered as only an early skir­mish in a gen­er­a­tion-long siege between the brown and the gray.

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