Unable to govern

Forget the big tent — the Republican Party is turning into a tent city: leaders trying to reassure the markets and corporate leaders that the country won’t default on its debt obligations and cause economic calamity; a defiant rank-and-file who don’t agree; congressional veterans who love the institution but propose abdicating legislative responsibility amid a fiscal crisis; outside conservative groups who, consequently, want to “burn [them] in effigy.” The establishment wing of the Republican Party are no longer grown-ups or leaders, but rather political refugees who are increasingly outnumbered and ignored. 

A plan by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to shift authority for raising the nation’s debt ceiling to the president without required spending cuts has, by most accounts, no chance of passing the House Republican Conference. But McConnell, a wily fox whose plot to free Republicans of any responsibility on a debt increase, would never have surprised House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with it and clearly received Boehner’s tacit approval before his announcement prompted all political hell to break loose in his party. 

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McConnell and Boehner are not contemptuous of governing and appreciate the necessity of compromise as well as the economic damage that default could yield. But they have conceded that a majority of the congressional Republicans they lead do not. They probably aren’t spending much time attempting to persuade Tea Party conservatives that their votes in favor of the successful Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) — not to mention Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) — turned out to be the correct and courageous thing to do.

And so the blame goes to President Obama, who has found eleventh-hour enlightenment on entitlement cuts and is still reaching for a $4 trillion deal but wants some form of revenue in exchange. “I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. An interesting thing to say about a Democratic president who just bucked his party to offer entitlement cuts and who Republicans know will likely cave on tax increases just as he did in December, when Obama extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for breaking a major campaign promise. Indeed, Obama is acutely aware of what another economic tornado will do to his prospects for reelection, and he’s ready to capitulate.

Sure, they are standing on principle; the Republicans want to be seen as the last bulwark against “job-killing tax hikes” in a fragile economy. But will they be? What does the average, quasi-informed American understand about Republicans walking away from a potential $4 trillion deal in exchange for a $2 trillion deal that is negated by a debt increase of more than $2 trillion? 

While conservative activists were urging their followers to barrage McConnell’s phone lines Tuesday night and help him “find his spine,” Obama was on CBS News saying, “I’m willing to make big changes, to take advantage of this opportunity and finally solve this problem. ... And I have to point out that this is a problem that Republicans said was their biggest priority.”

Protecting what are historically low tax rates might be a much bigger priority for Republicans than immediate debt reduction — but Republicans dwelling in different tents disagree on this. Obama is gambling that no matter how disappointed Democrats are with his willingness to cut entitlements, independent voters will agree with him that any party unwilling to sacrifice something in the name of fiscal stability in order to avoid default is unable to govern. 

Republicans better hope he is wrong.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.