The rational way to view these events is that Republicans have marginalized themselves. But the hard-liners see it differently. In their minds, every bill that passes is a betrayal by their leaders. They know that letting Democrats carry bills through the House has been the leadership’s desperate recourse to avoid total chaos, and since chaos is their leverage, they are now working feverishly to seal off that escape route. This year, an increasing proportion of conservative media is given over to conservative activists’ extracting pledges from Republican leaders not to negotiate with Democrats. In the wake of the tax-cut deal, Republican leaders in both houses had to pledge that they would not engage in any—to quote the ubiquitous buzzword—“backroom deals.” Since all deals get made in back rooms (there is no such thing as a front room, and leaders in Western cultures like the United States habitually transact their business in rooms), this means no negotiation at all.
A recent joint op-ed by National Review editor Rich Lowry and his Weekly Standard counterpart Bill Kristol denounced the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate as “a stew of deals, payoffs, waivers, and special-interest breaks.” This echoed the conservative critique of all major Obama-era legislation—Liz Cheney, launching her Wyoming Senate race last week, called on Republicans to stop “cutting deals”—but it applies just as well to any major bill in American history, including the ones passed by the sainted Ronald Reagan. Crafting a major piece of legislation means cutting some side deals. That’s how lawmaking works. But conservatives have increasingly come to see the entire process as a morally unacceptable compromise of their ideals. “The idea of Boehner’s negotiating with Pelosi over how to proceed is implausible,” a recent story by Jonathan Strong, a National Review reporter, noted as an aside. “It would telegraph weakness.”
Sometimes the paranoid really do have enemies, and in this case, conservative fears of betrayal have a basis in reality. Republican leaders, including staunch conservatives like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, actually do want to pass bipartisan immigration reform. This has only aggravated the base’s fear of treachery and forced the party leadership to ramp up the confrontation with Democrats on other fronts. If Republican leaders are going to try to get their base to swallow an immigration shit sandwich, they’re certainly not going to feed conservatives more shit sandwiches beforehand.
Yet there seems to be no way around it. Congress has to pass some kind of farm bill—failure to do so would, through a bizarre legislative quirk, cause the law to revert to where it stood in 1949, which would wreak all sorts of havoc at supermarkets. Congress will also have to pass bills to keep the government running, or else shut it down. And then it will have to lift the debt ceiling again. House Republicans have ignored constant pleas by Senate Democrats to sit down and negotiate their differing budgets. Instead, they plan to hold off any budget talks until late fall, when we will likely hit the debt ceiling, at which point, they believe, they can force Obama to accept their ransom demands.
Earlier this month, House Republicans issued those demands. They are staggeringly grandiose. If Obama wants to lift the debt ceiling for the rest of his term, they announced, all he has to do is … agree to sign on to Ryan’s plan to cut and privatize Medicare. If that’s too much for him, Republicans have generously offered the choice of letting Obama accept a package of deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps in return for a shorter debt-ceiling extension. Of course, if he chooses that route, he’ll have to come back again later and offer up further concessions.
The list is utterly deranged—Obama has sworn he won’t bargain over the debt ceiling again at all, and his entire administration would resign before he could agree to anything remotely like these demands. It’s not clear whether Republicans actually expect the president to succumb to their Bond-villain hostage scheme. But it is significant that Republicans are demanding even more from Obama than they demanded during previous debt-ceiling ransoms and will decry the inevitable failure to achieve it as yet another betrayal.
Rubio, who now passes for one of his party’s respected moderates, gives a sense of what a Republican negotiating strategy might look like this fall. The GOP, Rubio says, should shut down the government unless Obama agrees to defund health-care reform. (“If we have a six-month continuing resolution [postponing a shutdown], we should defund the implementation of Obamacare by those six months.”) Rubio has likewise demanded a second confrontation over the debt limit, insisting that failing to cut spending would risk a fiscal crisis: “They will say, ‘You’re going to risk default.’ The $17 trillion debt is the risk of default.”
In the actual world, the economy is recovering and the deficit, currently projected at half the level Obama inherited, is falling like a rock. Yet messianic Republican suicide threats in the face of an imagined debt crisis have not subsided at all. The swelling grievance within the party base may actually be giving the threats more fervor. The reign of the Republican House has not yet inflicted any deep or permanent disaster on the country, but it looks like it is just a matter of time.