Opinion: Dogmatism of GOP's base leading party down a dead-end street

The summer recess sends home 535 members of our nation’s wildly unpopular Congress.

Will members be told to do better at job creation and fixing the broken immigration system? Will voters get in their faces and say ‘Enough’ to meaningless votes over healthcare reform?

It is not likely.

The old Pogo comic-strip zinger applies here: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The heavily manipulated drawing of congressional districts over the last decade has created insulated pockets for dysfunctional political behavior. Most members of Congress face little criticism from people in their districts because those districts are increasingly limited to like-minded voters of the same party. And the political activists in those homogenized districts are often more polarizing than the people they send to Congress.

Only 16 House Republicans come from congressional districts that voted for President Obama. Among Democrats, there are only nine members who represent a district won by the Republicans’ last presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

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Thanks to an increase in Republican-led state legislatures over the last two years, the borders of several congressional districts nationwide have been redrawn to increase the odds that Republicans will retain control of those seats. One consequence is an increase in the racial imbalance in Republican congressional districts. In a nation that is more than one-third Hispanic, black and Asian, the voters in GOP congressional districts are on average 75 percent white.

The Cook Political Report puts an even sharper edge on what ‘home’ means to members of Congress. There are almost no swing districts anymore.

According to Cook there are only four congressional districts featuring a majority of Democrat voters and a Republican in Congress. There had been 22 Republicans who held seats in Democratic majority districts before GOP-led state legislatures got busy with gerrymandering congressional districts after the 2010 elections.

Even the Republican National Committee is concerned that the base of support in those narrowly drawn congressional districts limits the party’s appeal. In their review of the 2012 election, the RNC offered an honest appraisal in which they said the GOP needs to stop “driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac.” Those cul-de-sacs are Republican congressional districts.

The degree of insularity is evident in a recent New York Times blog by my former Washington Post colleague, Tom Edsall. He wrote that of the Republican majority in the House 40 percent of the 234 members “come from the 11 Confederate states, and these 97 [congressmen] are almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats.”

Last week, Pew Research reported that, nationally, a plurality of Republican voters (35 percent) believes “the party has compromised too much with Democrats.” Among Tea Party Republicans, 53 percent think their members of Congress are to open to compromise. Among all Republicans, 32 percent said the party’s strategy of obstructing President Obama and blocking budget deals and confirmation votes on cabinet appointments and judicial nominees has been “about right.” Only 27 percent of Republicans said there has been too little deal making and compromise.

Those Republican views stand in contrast to a recent Pew poll that found 52 percent of Americans think the GOP is too extreme in its politics and failure to compromise.

During the recess, this stultified political dynamic between the GOP and Democrats will be displayed, as town hall meetings become stages. Conservative activists will be there to protest against budget deals, against immigration reform and against healthcare reform. The liberals will try to stir their activists to attend and give the television cameras pictures of protests against the GOP’s hardball tactics.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House advisor, said last week that President Obama went on the road in advance of the recess to persuade voters that their congressmen are doing their job when they look beyond their congressional districts to see what is best for the entire nation.

At the same time the White House is considering issuing executive orders — with Congress out of town — on the economy, jobs, climate change and voting rights. The president recently told the New York Times he is not worried by GOP complaints about a White House power grab because “some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

When summer recess ends, Congress and the White House have to make a budget deal and raise the debt ceiling or shut down the government. Already, Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, is threatening a government shut down if Congress fails to cut all funding for healthcare reform.

But the recess is also giving Senate Finance chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means chair Dave Camp (R-Mich.) the chance to go “on the road” and continue to make their pitch for a bi-partisan deal on tax reform. They see it as integral to a September budget deal.

A government shutdown in the fall is a political loser — even more for the GOP than for the president, according to polls taken after near shutdowns in 2011 and 2012. That is why so much is riding on the message Republicans get from voters on this summer recess visit to their GOP “ideological cul-de-sacs.”

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