Peter Beinart has a must-read in Time on the rise of what he calls “vicious-circle politics”: the Republican strategy of using government gridlock and failure to win control of government. Beinart points out that GOP obstructionism in the Obama era has its roots in the Gingrich Congress, when congressional Republicans turned into an art form the use of polarization to stymie government and make the case to a frustrated public that they needed to evict the party in power.
He tracks its origins to the “great sorting-out,” the post-’60s alignment of party, region, and ideology that purified both parties, with conservative Democrats from the South and moderate Republicans from the North gradually switching sides.
But it wasn’t until the Republicans were knocked out of power in the 1990s that vicious-circle politics became an active GOP strategy. Beinart writes:
In the Clinton years, Senate Republicans began a kind of permanent filibuster. “Whereas the filibusters of the past were mainly the weapon of last resort,” scholars Catherine Fisk and Erwin Chemerinsky noted in 1997, “now filibusters are a part of daily life.” For a while, the remaining GOP moderates cried foul and joined with Democrats to break filibusters on things like campaign finance and voter registration. But in doing so, the moderates helped doom themselves. After moderates broke a 1993 filibuster on campaign finance, GOP conservatives publicly accused them of “stabbing us in the back.” Their pictures were taken off the wall at the offices of the Republican Senate campaign committee. “What do these so-called moderates have in common?” conservative bigwig Grover Norquist would later declare. “They’re 70 years old. They’re not running again. They’re gonna be dead soon. So while they’re annoying, within the Republican Party our problems are dying.”
In Clinton’s first two years in office, the Gingrich Republicans learned that the vicious circle works. While filibusters were occasionally broken, they also brought much of Clinton’s agenda to a halt, and they made Washington look pathetic. In one case, GOP Senators successfully filibustered changes to a 122-year-old mining act, thus forcing the government to sell roughly $10 billion worth of gold rights to a Canadian company for less than $10,000. In another, Republicans filibustered legislation that would have applied employment laws to members of Congress — a reform they had loudly demanded.
With these acts of legislative sabotage, Republicans tapped into a deep truth about the American people: they hate political squabbling, and they take out their anger on whoever is in charge. So when the Gingrich Republicans carried out a virtual sit-down strike during Clinton’s first two years, the public mood turned nasty. By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton’s health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it’s easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you’re the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win.
In the Obama era, with the congressional Republican caucus smaller and purer than it has been in a long time, the GOP has pursued vicious-circle politics on steroids. It’s a depressing — and depressingly familiar — picture that Beinart paints.
While Beinart acknowledges that Democrats might one day use the same strategy to stonewall a Republican administration, he notes correctly that the tactic fits better in the GOP playbook: “Winning elections by making government look foolish is a more natural strategy for the antigovernment party.” That observation raises another frightening prospect: absent filibuster-proof majorities, can major legislation only pass now with a Republican administration and Congress? Because all the moderates are now on the Democratic side, and because progressives — moderate or liberal — are less likely to see gumming up the works as a desirable end in itself, is it possible that only Republican-driven initiatives that could get moderate support will be the only way major legislation gets passed?
Beinart offers some solutions to break the vicious circle: opening more primaries to independents (like in New Hampshire); more Crossfire-style programs to counteract the ideological ghettoization on cable news; more Ross Perots who can light a fire under both parties to break the gridlock.
Whether you think them effective or not, those proposals will take years to enact. The Democrats need to govern now. And here’s the thing: they can. There are 18 more of them in the Senate, over 70 more of them in the House — not filibuster-proof, but certainly enough to get some things passed through reconciliation. Here’s what it all boils down to: In the face of a unified opposition bent on making sure they don’t get anything done, will Democrats band together, fight back, and govern proudly? Or will they shrink from the challenge and, in fact, get nothing done?
Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He formerly served as the managing editor of the Progressive Policy Institute.