Last spring, in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute addressed the dilemma of a dysfunctional Washington. Coming from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, the authors agreed the extreme or radical groups in Congress cannot work with the President, have become more ideological, and, more significantly, the Republican Party has repudiated compromise.
Following the November election, it seemed that the Republican Party understood at least in part the statement being made by the American voters. The voters rejected Romney; the Democrats gained seats in the House and the Senate; and extreme candidates failed.
In a year where the president and Democrats were extremely vulnerable, the Republican Party misread the electorate. They failed to reach the young, minorities, elderly, and especially Latino constituencies.
Many people began to believe that the loss would force the party to look in the mirror. During its final days, the 112th Congress avoided the fiscal cliff after the GOP softened its previously explicit pledge not to increase taxes. This was followed by a collegial agreement on a minor change by the new Senate on the rules governing the filibuster. It appeared that House Speaker John Boehner was beginning to control his own unbending Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor. While GOP opposition forced the president to withdraw Susan Rice’s name as his new Secretary of State, it seemed the atmospherics were beginning to change in Washington.
Then came last week’s double hit: the Senate showdown over Chuck Hagel for Defense and a Republican freshman’s uncalled for attack on the nominee.
After grilling Hagel on Iran, Israel, nuclear weapons, gays, and making much over his embarrassingly poor performance at his confirmation hearing, Republicans threatened a filibuster. Except when Cabinet nominees have moral or ethical flaws, committee members tend to grill nominees and send them to the floor for a vote. Filibustering a nominee is a fundamental failure by the GOP to accept the Senate’s explicit role: to advise and consent on nominations; not obstruct them for political purposes.
An indicator that it was “worse than it looks” was the attack on Hagel by newly elected Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Hagel is a Viet Nam veteran who earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. For Cruz to suggest that Hagel was on the payroll of “extreme or radical groups” goes way beyond any acceptable discourse in the U.S. Senate, as some even within the Republican caucus suggested. Sen. Cruz’s apparent rebuttal to the attack and the self-righteous nature of his response suggest that he indeed is far more interested in galvanizing a Republican base even if ultimately it could take the Party down with it.
Perhaps the GOP did not understand how serious were its political problems, especially its gap with Latino voters. Many were not willing to attack Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, for fear of a backlash from a constituent group that prefers Democrats by a margin of 4-1. Clearly, Sen. Marco Rubio’s Republican reply to the State of the Union address was also part of this same strategy. Unfortunately for Rubio, a rising star in his party, his performance proved to be better fodder for late night comedians than a boost to his national profile.
Despite those bad reviews, Rubio moved right back to congressional business, leaving on his first official congressional delegation trip to the Middle East — and his second trip to Israel since his election in 2010.
Given the extensive, largely economic, agenda that Congress faces over the next two months perhaps it is good that lawmakers left Washington for a 10-day break. Republicans especially need to use the time to listen to the country, and return prepared to do the people’s business.