It may sound funny to describe our current political moment as a truce. But I’m beginning to think that is the best way to describe it. Not a partisan detente, mind you. Far from it. The bitterness and acrimony and crazy are as high and likely higher than ever.
But if you look closely, a truce it is.
On the one hand, President Obama has completely given up on legislating, which is really the only logical course available to him. He’s now pursuing a reasonably ambitious agenda using a mix of executive orders and other executive prerogatives. The recent EPA carbon emission regulations aren’t the climate legislation most Democrats wanted. But they are a remarkably ambitious step based on executive action alone.
The Republican response has been less to fight these moves as to incorporate them into their anti-Obama narrative as (light version) norm-breaking imperial president or (strong version) emerging Obama tyranny. Not that they won’t fight them; they will. But the emphasis seems more on pocketing them as tools for motivating partisans than actually stymieing executive action – a decision no doubt rooted in the near impossibility of challenging the President legislatively since they’d need veto-proof majorities in both Houses. (The Courts, given SCOTUS’s activist bent, may be another matter.)
Meanwhile, on the Republican side there’s an almost complete embrace of the politics of scandal. First there’s Benghazi (first, last and always you might say), then the repeat investigations of Benghazi and now the capture of the purported Benghazi mastermind is, we’re told, in fact an effort to distract from … Benghazi or perhaps Hillary’s book tour. (On the B-side of this record, there’s the zombie IRS scandal, the ‘Taliban 5’ scandal, Bergdahl and a bunch of other mini scandals you may not even be aware of if you’re not inside the GOP-Fox hive mind.) The 90s era GOP scandal machine was no less loopy in its way. There’s a reasonable argument that it was much worse.
What seems different is the self-contained nature of the dialog. The Benghazi investigation is so parodic, self-reinforcing and devoid of new evidence, I don’t think most Democrats and I half suspect even the White House much cares when the latest new conspiracy theory emerges. This isn’t just exhaustion. It’s also a recognition that these ‘scandals’ seem entirely contained within the ‘Fox News’ ecosystem. Or what we might call, to use the language of territorial maximalism, Greater Fox News – where you tie-in the Washington Beacon, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and various other territorial dependencies and potential irredentist holdings.
And the kicker is, I’m not sure GOP congressional leaders particularly care either. Because it doesn’t really matter if the Democrats care or the White House does or even the actual media does. It’s a conversation with the base of the Republican party.
From a personal perspective, as you can imagine, I see Obama pushing necessary national priorities by the only means available to him and the GOP living in a bell jar inhaling the fumes of its own conspiratorial fantasies. But I think the pattern holds even if you separate out any critical analysis or evaluation of what each side is doing. In fact, even if you’re a partisan Republican, I think it’s basically the same. The white and black hats change. But the basic plot line remains. You have two governing and narrative tracks that are running in parallel to each other but increasingly operating in two different worlds.
In a way we’ve been living in this political world since Republicans took over the House in 2011. But I think there’s a change and its name is Obamacare.
As recently as a few months ago, Obamacare was still a territory of mutual concern and ambition where both two sides came into actual and often bitter conflict. Over a period of years Republicans pushed their 30 or 40 different flavors of repeal bills. It was a live issue whether the Supreme Court would allow the program to live until mid-2012 and an open political question until the November 2012 election. Then, after the Ted Cruz/Obamacare government shutdown, improbably and unexpectedly, it became massive issue overnight with the calamitous launch of healthcare.gov.
Whether or not it was ever a realistic concern (or hope) that the program might break down amidst the rollout wreckage, it certainly seemed like a very live issue, with constant checking of enrollment data, contending policy experts, mutual spin and recrimination and so forth. This was something both sides were (and still would be) very invested in fighting over.
But that seems pretty much done now. A realistic view suggests that is because it’s now clear the program won’t fail and isn’t going anywhere. The legislation was stronger than the website. There’s even growing evidence it’s picking up steam. On the margins we’re even seeing cases where Republicans are getting wrong-footed over the issue. But wherever you come down on the issue, you only need to look at the headlines to see nobody is really talking about it.
I don’t know what the best analogy is, perhaps two heavyweights in the late rounds of a title fight who start hanging on each other in a tacit pact of exhaustion. Or possibly a couple in a hopeless marriage that instead of reconciliation or divorce settle down to a de facto separation under a common roof.
However you choose to describe it, both sides of the partisan divide are operating in their own political universe, on their own political turfs. And the most striking thing is that both seem content to keep it that way.