A funny thing just happened.
After six years of obstruction, the Republican Party is finally in the position where they can be blamed for their own misconduct.
The result is that they are starting to change their behavior.
Mitch McConnell has acknowledged that he is the author of the obstructionist strategy that Republicans adopted in 2009. They were fresh off an historic loss to the nation’s first African American President. At the time, there was plenty of discussion of a post-partisan post-racial era that would recapture the golden New Deal age of Democratic dominance.
McConnell’s insight was that if Republicans refused to participate in the process of government, they could convince enough of the public that this new charismatic leader was at least partly to blame. He recognized that when an idea enjoys the support of both parties, it also receives the equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from mainstream voters. Anything that passed without that seal was suspect.
Republicans rode that suspicion to a 2010 victory.
Effectively grinding government to a halt was risky. It meant that Congress would fail at even routine tasks. It created the most dysfunctional government since the Civil War with historically low approval ratings for Republicans. But it also succeeded.
Republicans intended to destroy the American legislative process, and they did. Republicans set out to exacerbate partisan tensions, and they did. Republicans hoped to make Obama less popular by making it vastly more difficult for him to get anything done, and they did. Republicans hoped to parlay public discontent into electoral victories, and they did. Republicans made a conscious decision to prevent the president from bringing the country together, and they successfully made the national chasm larger.
Obama went from a figure of hope and change to the president who hasn’t signed a major bill into law since 2010. In 2014, Democrats were running for cover and Republicans were rewarded for their strategy.
The real reward from the 2014 elections is an opportunity to govern. On closer investigation, voters did not reject Obama’s policies. Many of those policies either in direct ballot initiatives or exit polling reports are very popular.
Voters also did not endorse McConnell’s obstructionist strategy.
Quite the opposite. Voters want a government that works and they have now put Republicans in a position where they have to demonstrate that they can do a better job.
Obama again has demonstrated his acute political sense. Rather than play the traditional role of powerless executive, he realizes that he is finally free to enact large portions of his agenda. He is betting, just like Mitch McConnell did, that the voting public will reward whichever party gets the most done in the next two years, and he has a head start.
He has already taken landmark action on immigration and the environment. He has a huge Pacific Trade agreement in the works. There is also the possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The economy is recovering faster than the rest of the world and the Saudi’s will keep oil prices low for the next two years to discourage competition. He can’t move on things that require appropriations like infrastructure or legislation like tax reform. But there are plenty of other areas where he can and has been active, all the while calling out the Republican majority to do their job and pass something substantive that he can sign.
The incoming Republican majority now has a choice. They can focus all of their energy on slowing Obama down, or they can take up the challenge that Obama has given them and begin passing their own legislation to address the issues that concern voters.
Both strategies have risk. In the first case, they are ignoring voters and hoping that there is still some life in the obstructionist strategy. In the latter case, they have to demonstrate that government CAN be a force for good, but only if Republicans are in charge. To accomplish that, they will need the same thing that they have withheld for the past six years from Obama – bi-partisanship.
Actions speak much louder than words. The actions of the incoming Republican majority suggest that the message of the last election was not a rejection of Obama’s policies as they have said. It was instead an opportunity to demonstrate that they can in fact govern, and a warning that they will be punished again in 2016 if they fail.
While it is interesting that John Boehner can describe a nine month spending bill as “long-term”, what it does say is that the new Republican controlled Congress will forgo holding the government hostage at least until September, 2015. That is a good sign.