The G. Gordon Liddy Republicans

One of my favorite Washington stories concerns infamous Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who used to entertain party guests by holding his hand in a candle flame for some time. “What’s the trick?” shocked onlookers would ask. He would reply stoically “The trick is, I don’t care.”

That explains Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise on an agreement that would reduce the deficit by both cutting spending and closing tax loopholes, despite the damage their refusal has inflicted on the GOP, which I detailed last week. And we know that Republican legislators are out of touch even with their own partisans, a majority of whom prefer a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.

You have to ask why GOP House members in particular are ready to endure so much punishment. The trick is, they don’t care. That’s the reason President Obama is having so much difficulty translating his political leverage into legislative action. Just as most people wouldn’t hold their hands in a candle flame, most politicians wouldn’t simply ignore public opinion and drive their party’s ratings into the ground. The president has successfully rallied public opinion to his side, which has hurt the GOP, but they simply don’t seem to care about the macro-political consequences of their actions.

The interesting question is why the Liddy Republicans don’t care. Of course, in all honesty, I don’t know, but I would advance three hypotheses.

First, House Republicans might not care because public views of the GOP in general don’t matter all that much to their individual electoral prospects. Just 30 of the 234 Republicans elected in 2012 sit in House seats that the president won in either 2008 or 2012. Only 16 represent districts the president won in 2012. Now, some political scientists argue that constituency views don’t impact members of Congress, but I think the balance of the evidence suggests that members in safe districts vote in a more partisan way than those in competitive seats — and darn few Republicans face competitive races. These members don’t have to worry about the consequences of their collective actions in general elections because, for them, there are none.

A second possibility is that Liddy Republicans don’t care about public opinion because they could reasonably be more worried about primary challenges from the right than general election challenges from the center. In state after state, the far right has seized control of the Republican nominating process, and we have witnessed their effectiveness in winning primaries for people like Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Trump renews call to end filibuster amid immigration furor MORE. Organizations like the Club for Growth prowl the country in search of centrist Republicans to defeat in primaries — and spend big bucks doing it.

Third, Liddy Republicans might not care because they put their — wrong-headed, in my opinion — vision of the national good above their own political interests. Trust me, I don’t like the way these far-right members look at the world. But they all believe they possess a perfectly adequate worldview, and are so devoted to pursuing it that they are blinded to its impact on their political fate — in short, they are true believers. Democrats and Republicans do look at the world differently, and each of us has difficulty truly understanding the perspective of the other. If the Liddy Republicans agreed with us, we might call them “Profiles in Courage” for their refusal to buckle under political considerations and instead stand strong for principle. But we do not agree with them, so we bewail their rigidity.

In the end, though, whether the source of the Liddy Republicans’ recalcitrance is ideological commitment, fear of primaries or insulation from political tides, we can be certain about two things: It’s damaging the GOP brand and it’s hurting our country.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.