Historically political change in Washington occurs at a glacial rate. Were this not the case, it is likely that the American two-party system would have devolved into a multi-party system or a parliamentary system as Woodrow Wilson proposed in his doctoral dissertation or even into a national government with no viable states or multiple countries. The rate of change in the U.S. has basically insured that America’s two-party system would prevail with the major parties straddling the center; despite the fact that their names have changed over time. It is in that context that one needs to recall—most recently the Dixiecrats, the Goldwater phenomenon, the McGovern shift, and Ross Perot—and perhaps soon the Tea Party movement.
Recent events in Washington since the beginning of 2013 have begun to suggest that perhaps the Republican Party (Tea-Party led) which had confronted the Obama Administration over the past four years at every turn and which in fact has been evolving since the 2004 election, is beginning to run its course, although hardly overnight. There are signs that while there still are many Tea-Party ideologues stirring up the Republican Party around the country, there now are also some Republicans who realize that unless their party faces the reality of the new demographic picture in the country, its future as a viable alternative is bleak. In addition, no party whose raison d’etre was obstruction has ever lasted very long in our history.
The evidence for this thesis is both systemic and substantive, keeping in mind that nothing here is dramatic but gradual. In the former category was the agreement—after much procrastination—to avoid the fiscal cliff. This was followed last week by the Republican offer to extend the debt ceiling for four months and to accept a weak and diluted but nevertheless progressive change in the Senate filibuster rules.
On the substantive side the issues of sequestration, the budgetary continuing resolution, and a more serious extension of the debt ceiling remain. The tests on policy issues will emerge after the President’s State of the Union Address on February 12 but no doubt will include gun control, immigration, and climate change. Admittedly there are still Republicans in the leadership who have declared that abortion related issues remain their most critical concern for the next Congress, but it is not clear whether either Representative Paul Ryan or Speaker Boehner are serious or merely playing out the rhetoric. Similarly, there are Democrats who do not want to yield an inch on Medicare, or social security reform but do want a wholesale tax reform.
If after all the rhetoric settles down the White House and Congress can begin to show a willingness to find some common ground on these areas, then we well may be entering an era of comity and after almost a decade of political hostility. Political reality may trump ideology. A chance at winning may be more important than scoring points.