When Republicans won the Senate last November and increased their majority in the House, GOP leaders made clear they intended to end the gridlock of recent years.
“We’re going to function,” vowed the new Senate majority leader, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. Our goal, House counterpart Kevin McCarthy said, is to “make the government function again.”
Speaker John Boehner’s abrupt decision to resign exemplifies the extent to which predictable divisions within those majorities have undercut reaching that goal. More importantly, it reflects a similar split within the larger Republican electorate that could jeopardize the GOP chances in 2016 by raising questions about the party’s readiness to govern.
Boehner tired of non-ending efforts to reconcile the traditional conservatives like himself with the tea party activists demanding a more aggressive approach. The activists are quite willing to shut down the federal government to achieve their goals – this year, to block funds for Planned Parenthood health programs and two years ago to kill Obamacare.
The extent to which these Capitol Hill divisions reflect the overall GOP was illustrated by the way Republican presidential hopefuls echoed them in reacting to Boehner’s departure. Establishment conservatives praised Boehner and expressed regret. These included former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
By contrast, the majority of the GOP field hailed the speaker’s downfall. These included everyone from the poll-leading outsiders like Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina to struggling insurgents such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Their comments reflected the extent to which Republicans want officials to stand up for their principles rather than seek compromise. That contrast has increased the influence of those who came to Washington to reduce the role of government – which they regard as a negative force – rather than to form positive coalitions toward conservative goals.
It’s really a rejection of the governing philosophy of the GOP’s most-revered modern leader, President Ronald Reagan, who believed, “An 80-percent friend is not a 20-percent enemy,” and was always willing to cut a deal achieving most of his goal.
More importantly, all evidence is that an all-or-nothing approach is both impossible to achieve in a politically divided government and likely to prove politically hazardous. If that sort of candidate wins the GOP nomination, it could damage Republican chances next year.
Non-Republican voters favor more bipartisan cooperation, and the political situation awaiting the next president will demand it. Republicans are likely to control the next House, but Democrats will almost certainly have enough strength to prevent a GOP Senate majority from mustering the 60 votes needed to pass a partisan agenda.
So, the only way the next president can get anything done will be across party lines, something that’s anathema to the GOP tea party wing and its adherents.
“Everything is going to have to have to be some sort of compromise,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a prominent House GOP pragmatist, said on Fox News Sunday.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.