After spending President Obama’s first term emboldening the most ideologically intense elements of the conservative movement, elected Republicans are now finding themselves in a box on critical issues like health care and taxes with limited options to avert national crises.
On health care, Republicans are coming to grips with the prospect of owning a mess of a system if the Supreme Court overturns ‘Obamacare’ this month.The central pillars of the health care reform law — guaranteed coverage regardless of health status, an individual mandate to buy insurance and subsidies delivered via exchanges — were originally crafted by moderate conservatives and have long enjoyed support in the GOP. But after Obama embraced the template, Republicans ran to the right and abandoned it in an effort to undermine him politically. Now, as they try to sneak back closer to the center, the hard-right base that they’ve empowered is giving them hell.
First came the warning shots from activist groups like FreedomWorks and Club For Growth, which most recently purged the longest serving Republican senator for taking moderate positions in the past. Then came the cries of opposition from conservative legislators in the party. The anger is reflected among high-profile conservative activists who are actively confronting party leaders for straying — and apparently making them nervous.
“These big-government Republicans show appalling indifference to the dire market disruptions and culture of dependency that Obamacare schemes have wrought,” writes right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin. “Who needs enemies when you’ve got Republican Surrenderists for Obamacare waiting in the wings?”
When it comes to taxes, Republicans had traditionally been amenable to at least limited compromise, but under Obama have taken their anti-tax ideology to unprecedented extremes even in the face of the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression. Despite warning of the urgency of taming record deficits, and with a massive budget contraction looming, Republican leaders aren’t budging in the face of Democrats’ demands to raise revenues alongside spending cuts to straighten out the nation’s fiscal trajectory.
Amid scraps of evidence that some Republicans want to ease their opposition to new taxes, Grover Norquist, the gate-keeper of the party’s anti-tax absolutism, is issuing stern warnings not to go down that road. And so far elected Republicans been careful not to cross him. In a sign of where the balance of power lies, Mitt Romney on Sunday reaffirmed his vow to reject a debt-reduction deal that has $1 in new taxes for every $10 in spending cuts. Last week, Jeb Bush was forced to backtrack after he was reamed by the right for suggesting that Republicans loosen up their ideological rigidity and be more open to raising taxes.
“I think the American people would look at anything that raised taxes from where they are today to be a tax increase,” Norquist told TPM, slamming shut an escape hatch from his pledge never to raise taxes that nearly all congressional Republicans have signed.
If Republicans win back the White House this fall, the right may still get their way on taxes. If not, President Obama intends to veto any extension of the lower rates for the rich.
Catering to the right always made sense as a opposition strategy, given the engagement and enthusiasm the base has lent to the Republican goal of winning back power. Politically the approach has paid huge dividends. But the upshot was that it mainlined activist base’s no-compromise philosophy into the bloodstream of the party’s highest echelons. Now, faced with the prospect of having to govern again if they win on Election Day, they’re having a hard time pivoting back.