On November 5, in the wake of the midterm election sweep in which they picked up nine seats in the Senate, thirteen seats in the House of Representatives, and two governorships, Republican leaders celebrated their victory. One refrain was repeated widely: After the bruising, dysfunctional mess that was the 113th Congress, the Republican Party would show that it was capable of getting things done. “We’re going to have a Republican Party that wants to govern,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “I think the gridlock is going to end,” said Sen. Rand Paul. There seemed to be many reasons for optimism. With the notable exception of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was defeated by professor David Brat in a stunning primary upset, establishment Republicans crushed tea party challengers across the country. The gaffes and blunders that had kept the Senate out of reach in 2010 were avoided. Furthermore, President Obama, with only two years left in office, would be seeking to consolidate his legacy, and there were a number of areas, including trade and tax reform, where compromise seemed within reach.
Four months later, the honeymoon period is long gone. After Mitch McConnell’s early insistence that “there will be no government shutdown,” Congress came within hours of exactly that. On February 28, appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security were set to expire at midnight and lawmakers were at an impasse. Republicans had hoped to tie the funding to the rollback of President Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration, but the measure stalled in the Senate after Democrats filibustered. With no resolution in sight, Speaker John Boehner introduced a bill to extend the deadline for an additional 3 weeks. The bill was defeated in the House, 224 to 203. Later that night, the House approved a one-week extension, relying primarily on Democratic votes; the House and Senate passed a “clean” appropriations bill, with no mention of immigration reform. Democrats relished their victory, while, on the Republican side, the House blamed the Senate, the Senate blamed the House, the leadership blamed the members and members blamed the leadership.
How did things go so wrong for the GOP? Some have suggested that Republicans, after six years as the party of just saying no to anything the president pursues, no longer know how to govern. However, the truth is more nuanced, and, in the long run, more troubling.
For a start, the immigration issue itself has been a source of bitter debate. In establishment Republican political circles, it has long been widely accepted that, in order to continue to remain competitive on a national level, the party needs to support immigration reform. In 2013, the RNCs “Growth and Opportunity Project,” a sort of post-mortem after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, was unequivocal: “among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” Boehner has said it “needs to be dealt with,” and a sweeping reform package that passed the Senate in June 2013 was negotiated by a bipartisan group of Senators and saw strong Republican support. At the same time, though, the very idea of immigration reform remains anathema to the GOP’s conservative wing. Political groups lash out at anything that looks like amnesty; Cantor’s primary defeat was largely credited to repeated accusations by conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham, a radio host, that he was too willing to compromise on the issue.
This conflict played out in the Homeland Security fight from the very beginning. Obama’s series of executive orders are widely unpopular among Republicans; even those who are proponents of reforms. However, many lawmakers wondered just how hard they should fight, with many fearing backlash if Homeland Security shut down. When a Texas judge ruled that the president’s executive order was unconstitutional, many suggested using it as an out. “Now we have the perfect reason to not shut it down because the courts have decided, at least initially, in our favor,” John McCain said on February 9. But they were again thwarted by conservatives in the House, who saw the ruling as a reason to double down and fight harder.
It is easy to criticize lawmakers for obstructionism, and to deride those members of Congress who seem to prioritize ideological purity and petty showmanship at the expense of effective governance. The Wall Street Journal has called out those who supported using Homeland Security funding to push immigration issues for failing to “recognize the political reality” and “marching off a cliff to certain failure.” The problem, though, is that especially in the House, there are very strong incentives for this behavior. With the exception of a few small groups like the 35-member House Freedom Caucus, most Republicans never seemed enthusiastic about the Homeland Security plan. Almost no one runs for office with the hope of doing nothing. But years of increasing polarization, exacerbated by gerrymandering by both parties, has caused great pressures against compromise. In May of last year, the Washington Post estimated that, out of 435 House races, all but 30 of them had one party with at least a 90 percent chance for victory. More than one-sixth of candidates were unopposed. With virtually no chance of defeat in the general election, many in the House see their only real challenge in the primaries. Consistently liberal and conservative voters are much more likely than moderates to vote in primaries. The result is that incumbents constantly fear primary challenges for their ideological flanks. Obstructionism and brinkmanship might blight the GOP at large, but it is often entirely in line with the political reality for individual lawmakers.
The conventional wisdom has held that gerrymandering helps party establishments and incumbents by creating safe, protected districts and avoiding challenging election fights. The Homeland Security incident, together with the government shutdown in 2013 and the GOP’s failure to address immigration more generally, show otherwise. Gerrymandering can also harm parties, and the country at large, by creating local incentives for individual lawmakers that are incompatible with larger policy goals and effective governance. The midterm elections have provided an immense opportunity for the Republican Party. But to seize it, lawmakers need to recognize that they will be more successful if their party is successful, and put off immediate pressures towards ideological purity. The House leadership needs to convince members of the need for compromise. If the GOP is going to have any chance of retaking the White House in 2016, it needs to elevate the voice of moderates and keep in check those who seek to use every piece of legislation to pick a fight with the White House. So far, it’s not looking good.