Republicans’ hard line since winning House could backfire

No bargaining, no deals, no compromise — that’s the hard-line stance that Republicans have staked in the days since seizing control of the House.

Their prescription for the sluggish economy — lower taxes, huge spending cuts, less regulation, and repeal of the sweeping healthcare law just taking effect — excites the party’s conservative base. But a long and ugly fight with President Obama and Senate Democrats, starting with next week’s lame-duck session, could end up alienating the large number of Americans more interested in jobs than ideological battles.

The midterm vote was “an expression of anger and impatience,” said James Thurber, an American University congressional expert. It was not, he said, a sudden burst of affection for the GOP.

In fact, exit polls showed Republicans and Democrats were almost equally disliked, with 53% of voters viewing Republicans unfavorably and 52% unhappy with Democrats.

That contempt for the two major parties, along with anxiety over the economy, fear for the future and a sense that most politicians aren’t really listening, could explain why so many voters have so little patience with Washington these days.


The country is passing through a period of unusual political upheaval: three successive “wave” elections in which control of the House switched twice. Mood swings that used to take years, even decades, now occur within a single campaign cycle. (Independent voters, the untethered group that decides elections, are especially turned off by the messy way that Washington works, the latest example being the tortuous months that Democrats devoted to passing healthcare legislation.)

But there is more to this age of volatility than just personal angst.

Aided by the Internet and abetted by a hyperactive — and often hyperbolic — 24/7 news cycle, the kind of political movement that used to incubate over time can spring almost fully formed overnight. Two years ago, the words “tea party” were more commonly associated with high society than electoral insurgency. Today, the small-government crusade and legion of tea party loyalists have become one of the most significant animating forces in American politics.

For Republicans on Capitol Hill, the midterm results were a clear-cut mandate for drastic change, starting with a rollback of Democrats’ healthcare plan. They say killing the law would spur the economy by lifting burdensome requirements that discourage businesses from expanding and adding jobs.

But their reading of the election results is, at the least, a subjective one. Exit polls found that voters were evenly split over whether to repeal the healthcare law: 48% supported the notion while 47% said they either wanted to keep the law in place or expand it.

More noteworthy, fewer than 2 in 10 cited healthcare as the most important issue facing the country today. (More than 60% cited the economy, suggesting where voters would like to see the most energy applied once the new session of Congress starts Jan. 5.)

Voters also seem more divided than Republican leaders about the merits of preserving the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year. Of those surveyed on election day, 40% favored an extension for all Americans, including the well-to-do; 36% said the cuts should be extended only for families making less than $250,000 a year, as Obama advocates.

House Republican leaders say raising taxes is the wrong thing to do when the economy is struggling, and they reject a compromise that would temporarily extend the cuts for the wealthy and make them permanent for the middle class.

“Extending all of the current tax rates and making them permanent will reduce the uncertainty in America and help small businesses create jobs again,” the likely new speaker, Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner, told reporters this week. “You can’t invest when you don’t know what the rules are, when you don’t know what the tax rates are going to be next year. And that’s why making these permanent will be the most important thing we can do to help create jobs in the country.”

In the Senate, the Republican leader appeared a bit more accommodating. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell on Thursday reiterated his willingness to listen to Obama’s plan for a temporary extension. Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill have also indicated they could work with the president and Democrats on a handful of other issues, including trade and education.

The most crucial test of the new Republican majority may come next spring, when the federal government must raise the debt ceiling, or lose its borrowing power. Some tea party faithful would happily force a default and renewed financial crisis to cap Washington’s gusher of red ink. But that sort of brinksmanship didn’t work so well the last time Republicans tried it, forcing a government shutdown after their 1994 takeover of Congress.

Mickey Edwards, a political analyst at the Aspen Institute and a former Republican leader in Congress, cautioned that both parties may be misinterpreting the election returns and could wind up antagonizing voters even more as a result.

Obama and fellow Democrats are kidding themselves, he said, if they believe their crushing losses were merely a result of poor communication, as the president and many of his allies have suggested. “They have to realize people handed them their hats and said, ‘Leave.’ They have to do something different,” Edwards said.

Republicans, he went on, should look for ways to govern and not drive the two parties even further apart. (Lawmakers on both sides, he said, need to forget about the 2012 presidential race for the time being.)

“The American people don’t give a damn about the political parties,” Edwards said. “What they have is great concerns about their job security and about whether they’re going to lose their homes and about whether they can afford to send their kids to [college].”

Few analysts, however, see room for much agreement — not when the two parties are philosophically so far apart and personal animosities, built over so many years of political trench warfare, run so deep.

“Things that are essential will get done,” said Gary Jacobson, a UC San Diego political scientist who studies Congress. “They’ll finance the wars. There will be a budget, after great debate. But it’s unlikely anything very dramatic or important will be accomplished.”

That could make vengeful voters even more disgusted. Only next time, unless the economy perks up and millions of people are back working in 2012, the wrath directed at Obama and his party could turn on the GOP as well.

Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.