Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who would dearly love to be president, recently berated his fellow Republicans for insufficient fortitude in opposing President Obama’s executive orders that gave legal protection to millions of undocumented immigrants.
“It’s time for our Republican leaders in Congress to grow a spine,” he thundered at a gathering of conservative activists. “It’s time for them to do the job we elected them to do.”
But other Republicans suggested it was time for folks like Jindal to grow a brain. In their view, blocking funds for the Department of Homeland Security – as a way of forcing the president to back down on immigration – was a foolish and futile exercise that would blemish the GOP’s brand just as the 2016 presidential campaign takes shape.
“We’ve engaged in an exercise of tactical malpractice, self-delusion and self-destruction,” lamented Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania. “Some folks have a harder time to face the political reality than others.”
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He’s right about self-delusion, and in the end, the Brains beat the Spines. House Speaker John Boehner was forced to confront “political reality” and allow passage of a DHS funding bill containing no restrictions on Obama’s immigration policy.
But that fight revealed a series of political realities that will not go away. And any hope for bipartisan cooperation over the next two years – which flared briefly after Republicans took control of the Senate last November – is flickering badly.
The first reality is that Senate Democrats have united behind the hard-nosed tactics of their leader, Harry Reid, and are ready to employ a device they deeply despised when Republicans used it against them: the filibuster. In fact, Democrats so hated Republican filibusters that they invoked the so-called “nuclear option” and changed the rules to ban their use against many presidential appointments and judicial nominations.
That was then. Now the Democrats, after losing their Senate majority, have fervently embraced the filibuster. Four times Senate Republicans tried to move a DHS funding bill containing restrictions against Obama’s immigration policy attached by the House. Four times they failed – with not a single Democrat defecting.
The second reality is a sharp split in Republican ranks between the Spines and the Brains. The Spines agree with Jindal, that they were elected to defy Obama at every turn, and they have absolutely no interest in any sort of compromise. Moreover, many were elected in districts deliberately drawn to guarantee a GOP victory and protect them from any kind of political accountability. So they pay no price back home for their intransigence.
The Brains counter that Republicans on a national level will pay a huge price if the Spines are allowed to dictate party policy. “It means trouble – how many times can we go over the cliff and survive?” asked Rep. Peter King of New York.
Ed Rogers, a shrewd Republican strategist, wrote in the Washington Post that the rise of the Spines was a “bad omen” for his party, because a strategy of hardline confrontation would severely cripple the party’s chances in 2016 with the centrist voters who usually decide elections.
“The Democrats are enjoying the spectacle and relaxing while the Republican brand erodes even further and the hole the purists are digging gets deeper,” wrote Rogers.
But the third reality is that the Spines are probably here to stay. Many thoughtful analysts in both parties agree that the drawing of highly partisan district lines is a key reason for the rise of the Spines and their outsized influence. As a result, 12 states have established some form of independent commission to draw those lines in a less partisan fashion.
The legality of those commissions is now being challenged in the Supreme Court, and a brief filed by two political scientists, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, outlines the stakes. If the commissions are trashed, and raw political power dominates the drawing of district lines, two results will ensue, they write:
“Diminished electoral competition, which insulates representatives from their constituents; and an increasingly polarized Congress that takes cues from the most extreme and politically active partisans, with little incentive to compromise.”
Unfortunately, the four conservative justices – joined by swing vote Anthony Kennedy – seemed unmoved by this reasoning during oral arguments this week. So the court is likely to make the problem worse, not better, by undermining the commissions and increasing the power of lawmakers “with little incentive to compromise.”
The fight to fund DHS is over for now. But that struggle presages many more confrontations to come. That’s just the reality.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.