It is easy to appreciate that most congressional Republicans entered 2014 mainly hoping not to screw up a winning hand. The bitter 2012 presidential defeat was far in the rear-view mirror and was blurred by Barack Obama’s sinking job approval (and even personal favorability) ratings, which naturally looked to his critics like basic truths about his honesty and competence finally sinking in.
The more recent fiasco of the government shutdown, which sent the congressional GOP’s own favorability ratings to historically abysmal levels, was before long viewed as a cautionary tale, but one that had been largely forgotten by Americans more alarmed by Obamacare’s troubles and a stubbornly weak economy. And with the narrowed electorate and tilted landscape of a midterm contest coming right up — made even brighter by an “enthusiasm gap” between the parties that at present looks a lot like that of 2010 — Republican optimism has soared.
Indeed, even Tea Party bravos launching Senate primary “purge” campaigns reflected the upbeat sentiment on the right: it would take someone not only as conservative but as inept as a Todd Akin to lose GOP Senate races in midterm contests centered in Democratic-held red states like Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina — not to mention Republican-held Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.
Thus, the implicit 2014 Republican mantra has been “Do No Harm.” But so far its congressional strategy has looked as counterproductive as a leaky football “prevent defense” giving a beaten opponent chance after chance to catch up. On issue after issue, congressional Republicans have struggled to do nothing without doing damage to themselves.
The most obvious example is the imminent debt limit challenge. Despite a near-universal consensus among Republicans to avoid the appearance of risking a debt default, that risk is steadily mounting, entirely due to disarray in the GOP about how to save face during a surrender. This account from the Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Robert Costa paints a picture of a party that can’t organize a strategic retreat:
Without as much internal dissent as in previous budget showdowns, Republicans still face a powerful enemy: the calendar. The House will adjourn Wednesday afternoon so Democrats can attend their annual issues retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and then the entire Congress is shuttered during the week of Presidents’ Day.
Once the chamber closes Wednesday, the House will not return for a full workday until Feb. 26, which is one day before Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said he will lose his ability to juggle the nation’s finances. The quick march would then begin toward defaulting on portions of the nation’s more than $17 trillion debt, sending global financial markets reeling.
This time crunch means that unless Republicans quickly coalesce around a plan, the last week of February will bring another countdown moment before a critical fiscal deadline.
“Unforced error” hardly captures the folly involved as Republicans seek popular spending priorities instead of the traditional “dollar of cuts for every dollar of debt” in a doomed effort to lure Democrats away from their united front demanding a “clean” debt increase bill.
If congressional Republicans can get out of this trap they laid for themselves, perhaps they can evade another on immigration reform.
Republicans’ basic dilemma hasn’t changed in recent months: how to avoid responsibility for the failure of comprehensive immigration reform legislation without producing an unseemly backlash from the opponents of any sort of “amnesty” who posses disproportionate clout in the party “base.” The solution not-so-subtly favored by the Republican establishment is to find a parliamentary gambit or a redefinition of the terms of debate that will trick “the base” into accepting comprehensive reform under a false flag. The increasingly infamous “immigration principles” unveiled at last week’s House GOP retreat represented a failed effort in that direction as conservatives immediately smelled a rat.
To re-consolidate their ranks, House leaders retreated from their tiny shred of common ground with the Senate by making mistrust of Barack Obama’s willingness to enforce any new immigration regime — Obama-the-scofflaw having already become a robust party theme after the State of the Union Address — the latest excuse for inaction. But then, in a fine chess move this weekend, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) knocked the props from beneath this position by suggesting a 2017 effective date for any new law, driving Republicans back to the pretzel-logic argument that making Obama irrelevant to the immigration reform debate would leave him free to abandon enforcement of the law altogether (it’s actually a collapse of reform legislation that would intensify pressure on Obama to seek de facto legalization via executive action).
If Obama’s presence and absence equally make immigration reform unacceptable — even to the Republicans who haven’t already ruled out “amnesty” in any form — it’s probably time to concede it just isn’t happening. To put it another way, with the entire conservative movement alert to the possibility of some sort of RINO stab-in-the-back on immigration reform, it will take an exceptionally deft stiletto-between-the-ribs to pull off a legislative coup. And frankly, the GOP congressional leadership looks about as “deft” right now as a three-toed sloth — or the world’s worst poker players.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.