Can Republicans Govern?

David Brooks is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore.

David Brooks is mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore.

Over the past months, Republicans enjoyed enormous advantages. Opinion polls showed that voters are eager to reduce the federal debt, and they want to do it mostly but not entirely through spending cuts.

There was a Democratic president eager to move to the center. He floated certain ideas that would be normally unheard of from a Democrat. According to widespread reports, White House officials talked about raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting Social Security by changing the inflation index, freezing domestic discretionary spending and offering to pre-empt the end of the Bush tax cuts in exchange for a broad tax-reform process.

The Democratic offers were slippery, and President Obama didn’t put them in writing. But John Boehner, the House speaker, thought they were serious. The liberal activists thought they were alarmingly serious. I can tell you from my reporting that White House officials took them seriously.

The combined effect would have been to reduce the size of government by $3 trillion over a decade. That’s a number roughly three times larger than the cost of the Obama health care law. It also would have brutally fractured the Democratic Party.

But the Republican Party decided not to pursue this deal, or even seriously consider it. Instead what happened was this: Conservatives told themselves how steadfast they were being for a few weeks. Then morale crumbled.

This week, Republicans will probably pass a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that has zero chance of becoming law. Then they may end up clinging to a no más Senate compromise. This proposal would pocket cuts that have already been agreed on, and it would eliminate leverage for future cuts and make them less likely.

There is room to quibble here. The “broad tax-reform process,” for example, would have included tax increases. That’s a poison pill for many Republicans. But the broad strokes here are right: Obama had not only allowed them to get away with holding the nation’s credit line hostage but given them fabulous cash and prizes for doing so. And they’re almost certainly going to get much less by insisting on everything than they had already achieved at the negotiating table.

I’m less sold on his conclusions, however, as to why this happened:

The Beltway Bandits. American conservatism now has a rich network of Washington interest groups adept at arousing elderly donors and attracting rich lobbying contracts. For example, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform has been instrumental in every recent G.O.P. setback. He was a Newt Gingrich strategist in the 1990s, a major Jack Abramoff companion in the 2000s and he enforced the no-compromise orthodoxy that binds the party today.

Norquist is the Zelig of Republican catastrophe. His method is always the same. He enforces rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible.

The Big Government Blowhards. The talk-radio jocks are not in the business of promoting conservative governance. They are in the business of building an audience by stroking the pleasure centers of their listeners.

They mostly give pseudo Crispin’s Day speeches to battalions of the like-minded from the safety of the conservative ghetto. To keep audience share, they need to portray politics as a cataclysmic, Manichaean struggle. A series of compromises that steadily advance conservative aims would muddy their story lines and be death to their ratings.

The Show Horses. Republicans now have a group of political celebrities who are marvelously uninterested in actually producing results. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann produce tweets, not laws. They have created a climate in which purity is prized over practicality.

The Permanent Campaigners. For many legislators, the purpose of being in Congress is not to pass laws. It’s to create clear contrasts you can take into the next election campaign. It’s not to take responsibility for the state of the country and make it better. It’s to pass responsibility onto the other party and force them to take as many difficult votes as possible.

Both parties have and had always had Beltway Bandits, Show Horses, and Permanent Campaigners. Maybe their numbers have increased but not enough so as to matter. And, at the end of the day, Bachmann has one vote out of 435 and Palin has no vote at all.

There’s certainly something to the criticism of talk radio and their Fox News broadcast brethren. The volume has gone up and the coverage has increased from three hours of Rush Limbaugh in the middle of the day to something like 24/7. But it’s not at all clear how much of the Michaean struggle bit is an act and how much of it is zeal.

Brooks concludes:

All of these groups share the same mentality. They do not see politics as the art of the possible. They do not believe in seizing opportunities to make steady, messy progress toward conservative goals. They believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle. They believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes. They believe they are Gods of the New Dawn.

This, it seems to me, is the real issue. There have always been True Believers among the party organizers on both sides. But they’re threatening to take over the Republican Party for good.

While a growing phenomenon in recent years, it’s really come to a head since the 2008 election. After all, George W. Bush certainly managed to make bold policy shifts during his tenure in office, like them or not. But 2006 put Republicans in a minority in Congress and 2008 put them on the sidelines. Rather than taking the lesson that Bush personally or Republican policies generally were to blame for their disfavor, they took the opposite lesson: They weren’t being true enough to their core beliefs. That’s generally a sucker’s bet but they managed to cash in big in 2010–although some of us argue that the party would have done better without crazies in a handful of key races.

I’m still holding out hope that McDonnell, Boehner, and other grown-ups will get a reasonable deal done and avoid crisis for both the country and the party. But it’s no longer a certainty.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rock says:

    Short answer: No!

    I’ve often told my kids that Republicans are lucky if they can win elections at the national level . . . but once in office don’t know how to govern very well. They can’t stand the pressure.

  2. Tom Mathers says:

    “There was a Democratic president eager to move to the center…” Ha. Ha. Ha. No need to read the rest.

  3. john personna says:

    So Tom, do you think it is traditional for Democrats, liberals, to propose trillions in spending cuts?

  4. gVOR08 says:

    The deeper question, Mr. Joyner, is – what exactly is the Tea Party? On its face and according to the press, they are a populist revolt against the Republican establishment. However, they seem fairly well funded and coordinated. It’s well reported that the Koch bros put a lot of money into them. One would assume the Kochs are the visible tip of an iceberg of funding. Is this an “oil patch” elite opposing the “Wall Street” elite?

    Are we looking at a rebellion or a well masked palace coup?

  5. john personna says:

    I think it’s kind of amazing that the cottage industry in the media (large and small) seems to be in explaining Republican madness.

    It had been a while since I visited bloggingheads, but I did so yesterday, and listened to most of this episode. In it Michael Dougherty uses “all faith, no reason” to describe Michele Bachmann. He explains that it isn’t strictly religious faith, but it is ideological faith as well.

    That seems to sum up where the Republican core are these days. We’ve seen them become a more faith-based movement over the years. But lately they’ve given up on converting the masses, the middle. They don’t really try to sell “no new taxes” to the middle, they just stubbornly hold to it in their minority.

    That’s a losing formula. As I’ve said, they’ve stopped trying to be The Real Americans. They are going into the weeds, driven by their own faith.

  6. Tom Mathers says:

    John Personna,
    Can you show me anything concrete that the Dems proposed? There were certainly a lot of leaks, rumors, and ideas floated, but as the CBO has stated, ” we don’t score speeches”. The Biden cuts amounted to $2bn, with a B, and although I was a liberal arts major, I think that seems a far ways off from the trillions that you’ve cited. Taxes now for spending cuts later is the Charlie Brown football of debt/budget negotiations. I remain hopeful that we’re approaching the end of that cycle.

  7. john personna says:

    I can put this back at you Tom, if Obama did propose $4T in cuts, with just a little revenue enhancement around the edges, ends to ethanol subsides, etc, should the GOP have accepted it?

    I won’t play the game, the one where you hide the fact that you can’t do it, by pretending the offer wasn’t there.

  8. john personna says:

    (The Obama proposal is widely reported in the news. The only people pretending it wasn’t there are in the GOP spin machine. They hope the general public is stupid enough to believe them, but actually it’s only people on their fringe who buy it. That’s counterproductive, because it splits the fringe further from the middle. It reinforces the GOP as a minority movement. You know, the one with 21% support in these negotiations.)

  9. James says:

    The “broad tax-reform process,” for example, would have included tax increases. That’s a poison pill for many Republicans.

    As I understood, The White House was willing to leave the rates as the were (perhaps even lock in the Bush rates permanently) but wanted to eliminate spending in the tax code.

    But anyways, isn’t this the problem? I’m pretty sure increasing the Medicare eligibility age, reducing Social Security’s payouts and deep cuts to discretionary budget programs like Pell Grants are all poison pills for many Democrats.

    I really don’t understand this, James. Do Republicans have to compromise ever?

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    The Republican Party started going off the rails at the beginning of the 1980’s, getting further and further into bed with religious zealots, racists and witch-doctor economists. And all along the way David Brooks was right there cheering it on and bemoaning dour, uninspiring liberals and their boring preoccupation with reality.

    Now the Mad Hatter party he personally dropped on its head about 2,000 times has finally grown up enough to do some real damage, and he has the gall to not add himself to that list of things gone wrong? A goodly portion of this mess is his freaking fault for routinely running interference for the latest Republican nonsense. Now suddenly when the profits of the corporate masters he has so faithfully served are endangered, shazzam!: Brooks becomes Mr. Govern Seriously.

    I’d like to take that edition of the New York Times and smack him in the nose with it, but I think he’s done a good enough job on his own helping to run the print side of the newspaper out of business.

  11. Tom Mathers says:

    @john personna,
    when asked to show something concrete, your reply is a hypothetical, and then a “I’m not going to play that game”. no wonder you like Sun God Obama so much. as for the 21% support, is that the CBS poll of adults, with an 11% D edge? Keep the laughs coming.

  12. john personna says:

    Note: If you want to sound sane, and like you’ve a handle on mainstream opinion, don’t go off on “Sun God Obama.” It makes the whole post self-defeating.

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @gVOR08: The Tea Party movement was supported by the anti government oligarchs but they now realize they have created a monster they can’t control which may threaten their own financial security. Perhaps they should go back and read Mary Shelly.

  14. Rob in CT says:


    To me, your position looks… detached from reality. The Dems keep offering to do a deal that is mostly cuts. The GOP response to date has been: zero revenue increase or no deal. And you’re trying to sell us on the idea that the Dems aren’t offering real compromise?

    I’d laugh if this wasn’t so sad.

  15. TheColourfield says:

    “no wonder you like Sun God Obama so much”

    How do you argue with entrenched stupidity like this?

  16. Hey Norm says:

    Tom mathers clearly does not understand the concept of negotiating.
    This a problem I see a lot from the right generally, and the tea party specifically. They have come to believe in this rigid ideology that has no basis in the real world. This idea that tax cuts pay for themselves and create jobs too!!! Or the debt ceiling is about future spending. Or the US is on the brink of insolvency. Or the US is just like Greece. They are all demonstrably false, and yet they are catechism to these folks.
    I don’t know what you do about it…but it’s bad for the republic.

  17. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm, you might enjoy that “all faith, no reason”” video above.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    And it’s not just Tom Mathers. Eric Cantor went out and said Obama agreed to this. Well the first rule of negotiating is that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. But Cantor is a clown. Unfortunately he seems to represent a large part of the so-called-republican base.

  19. Alanmt says:

    You can’t, Colour. They are true believers.

    I never thought that I would be disgusted with the political party that I felt a part of from age 7 to age 46, a year ago. I learned early, before the partisan rancor became even more poisoned, that Republicans were realists, Democrats were idealists. That has been turned on its head now, and not in a good way.

    “How can people be so stupid?” They just are. But when subjective partisan and ideological loyalties become unexamined, entrenched, simplified from reason to faith, then you see this epistemic closure. Catastrophe can open up closed minds. But not a whole lot short of that can.

  20. john personna says:

    This is what happens when they push out all the RINOs, expand the definition of RINO, and repeat.

  21. Tom Mathers says:

    @Rob in CT: @TheColourfield: sorry to offend your delicate sensibilities. I agree, no need for name calling. I’ll be in the corner with the rest of the religious zealots, racists, witch-doctor economists, and Mad Hatters.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    They believe they are Gods of the New Dawn.

    The Republicans are no longer a political party, they are a cult. Hopefully soon, they will drink the kool-aid and then a saner version can take it’s place

  23. ratufa says:

    @john personna:

    The Biden cuts amounted to $2bn, with a B

    Are you talking about the cuts Biden was aiming for the the debt ceiling negotiations or something else? If it is the debt ceiling negotiations, where is your source? Because, Biden and the Democrats were talking about much larger cuts than that. For example:

    Can you show me anything concrete that the Dems proposed? There were certainly a lot of leaks, rumors, and ideas floated,

    If you expect Obama to make a televised speech proposing cuts in Medicare and Social Security, as opposed to leaks and trial balloons, you missing one of the purposes of negotiating a deal with the other party before making proposals. The reason for bi-partisan negotiations is not just to come to an agreement on spending cuts and revenue increases, but also to force both parties to share the blame for unpopular cuts. BTW, the Ryan plan is not a counter-example to this.

  24. giantslor says:

    The public is fed up with the Tea Party. A lot of freshman Tea Party Republicans will be voted out in 2012 and replaced with Democrats.

  25. Tom Mathers says:

    Key text:
    In the nearly two-hour-long White House meeting Monday afternoon during which leaders reviewed savings found last month by a group led by Vice President Joseph Biden, McConnell asked only one question, according to a Republican source familiar with the talks.

    “How much does the Biden plan actually cut from next year’s discretionary spending budget?” the Kentucky Republican asked the room.

    Obama’s Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew told him, “$2 billion.”

    A second source close to the original Biden group confirmed this number.

    I love how trial balloons and leaks are being credited as master strokes of negotiating genius. This whole thing is absurd kabuki, with BO in the lead role.

    Also, let me be clear, both sides are at fault here, it’s just that the slant from Brooks, OTB and its comment-folk that it is the Rs that can’t govern is risible.

  26. Herb says:

    “McDonnell, Boehner, and other grown-ups”

    Mickey D should be Mickey C, but who am I, the ombudsman? Since you had McDonnell in mind in the previous sentence, I’m gonna let this one go…

    As to the subject, I wonder what the next generation is going to learn about the virtues of divided government. Will they sing its praises as do those who grew up in Reagan’s day?

  27. You can’t, Colour. They are true believers.

    The problem is the Tea Partiers aren’t true believers.

    The true believers are the people who were as mad about Bush’s overspending as Obama’s, not the people who act like there was no deficit prior to January 20, 2009.

    The true believers are the people who wanted the $3 trillion in cuts/$1 trillion in tax cuts deal because it made a huge dent in deficit and significant cuts in spending, not the people who turned it down so they could go on posturing.

    The Tea Party doesn’t really care about small government at all, just about making sure their team wins in 2012. This is a disaster for people who actually believe in reducing the deficit and cutting spending because the best chance to do both in several generations is being squandered. And for the next 30 years, anyone proposing a serious proposal along this line is going to get lumped in with people like Bachmann.

  28. Tom Mathers says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    When the Dems voted unanimously against the debt ceiling increase a scant 5 years ago, where they looking out for the good of the country, or trying to help their side win? Take your time.

  29. @Tom Mathers:

    So what’s the argument here? The Democrats were childish five years ago, so now it’s the Republicans turn to act like children?

  30. PJ says:

    @Tom Mathers:
    Five years ago, the Democrats weren’t the majority, and they didn’t intend to actually stop the debt ceiling from being raised, much like any previous opposition to the ceiling being raised. And the vote wasn’t held days before the debt defaulting, meaning that if the vote had failed, there would have been another vote within days that would have raised it.

  31. Tom Mathers says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Sure, if you want to read it that way. I’d prefer to say that this whole process is ALL hypocritical posturing, by both sides. My only (attempted) point in this morning spent playing tennis on OTB is that the premise of “The Reps can’t govern” is absurd. Neither side can govern currently (and no it is not obstructionist Rs who are the problem), and neither side is willing to touch the 3rd rail of entitlements, President Obama’s (see, no name-calling) leaks and trial balloons notwithstanding. I’m not a Tea Partier, I’m not religious, nor do I worship at the shrine or Reagan or W. I do think the USA is completely screwed, and that there is plenty of blame to go around, and no motivation to change behavior. Until more feel that way, we’ll have kabuki, as mentioned above. If those views put me in a true believer cult of racists, as per the OTB commentariat, so be it.

  32. john personna says:

    @Tom Mathers, there is a key difference between a protest vote on something that is goring through anyway, and blocking passage.

    If you can figure a way to raise the limit now, avert default, while having every Republican vote against it, go ahead. (I guess that’s what McConnell was after.)

  33. ponce says:

    The real problem is the Republicans’ enablers who continue to vote for them no matter how badly they behave.

  34. Tlaloc says:

    And, at the end of the day, Bachmann has one vote out of 435 and Palin has no vote at all.

    I have to disagree with your implication here. Palin and Bachmann’s power today has little or nothing to do with their ability to vote on legislation but on their ability to whip up the mob. They’re both effective at that one role- demagogue who creates a simplistic and usually utterly false narrative and feeds it to the hard right base. They’re part of the reason the hard right is so convinced of so much that just isn’t so (default won’t happen or if it does won’t matter, climate change isn’t occurring or if it is at all caused by people, evolution is a myth…). Now granted they are only part, only the latest generation of hucksters.

  35. mantis says:

    Republicans hate government (except when it comes to your sex lives), so of course they can’t govern. They don’t want to govern. They want to burn the place down.

  36. jukeboxgrad says:


    I’m still holding out hope that McDonnell, Boehner, and other grown-ups will get a reasonable deal done and avoid crisis for both the country and the party. But it’s no longer a certainty.

    I don’t think there will be a deal, because the tea party doesn’t want a deal. From their perspective, this is a unique opportunity to cut the federal budget by 40%, overnight. And they figure it will be cut just the way they want: defense and entitlements are safe (after all, they want the government to keep its hand off their Medicare), but the effete liberals at EPA, HUD, HHS, Ed, Labor, et al will all be immediately out of work. This is exactly what they’ve been dreaming about for decades. No way they will turn down a chance to make this happen.

    And so what if this wrecks the economy? That’s not a bug, it’s a feature, because they figure Obama will be blamed.

    So if you want to predict what’s going to happen, you have to start with the premise that the tea party sees the absence of a deal as all upside and no downside for them. They don’t want a deal, period.

    This perspective has been nicely summarized by Bachmann, who is a terrific embodiment of the tea party mood. She said “I Will Not Vote to Increase the Debt Ceiling.” And note that she has signed the DeMint pledge, “but she says even with changes outlined in the pledge … she wouldn’t vote to raise the debt ceiling.”

    The tea party really, really wants there to be no deal, and they are probably in a position to prevent a deal. Therefore there will probably be no deal.

  37. ponce says:

    I have to disagree with your implication here. Palin and Bachmann’s power today has little or nothing to do with their ability to vote on legislation but on their ability to whip up the mob.

    Unfortunately, for things to get better, reasonable Republicans will have to stand up for what they believe, get “primaried” by the Republican fringe right and then most if not all of their candidates go on to lose to Democrats in the general election.

    Hard to get sitting Republicans to buy into that plan.

    Alternately, reasonable Republicans could defect en masse to the Democrats now and take their chances next fall.

  38. MM says:

    I’m still holding out hope that McDonnell, Boehner, and other grown-ups will get a reasonable deal done and avoid crisis for both the country and the party. But it’s no longer a certainty.

    I think that McDonnell’s grown-upness is somewhat in dispute. Does he understand that compromise exists and that the debt ceiling ought to be raised? Sure. But he also sure sounds like he’s willing to burn the economy to the ground if he thinks that the end result is the GOP winning both houses and the presidency.

  39. Rob in CT says:

    @Tom Mathers:

    You keep bringing up racism. I’ve not seen anyone accuse you of such.

    I can sign on, in broad strokes, to this particular post of yours. There is one problem with it: the “pox on both their houses” approach means you cannot assign more blame to one side or the other when warranted. I believe that there were times in teh past when the Democrats’ attachment to reality wore really thin. I think the shoe is on the other foot at present, making the GOP the bigger problem for now. Both parties have fringes. One appears to be ruled by its fringe at the moment, and it’s a problem.

    Our problems didn’t crop up overnight. They didn’t start on 1/20/09. They didn’t start on 1/20/01 either, though I’d certainly argue that 2001-2009 saw a lot of bad decision-making. The roots of many of our troubles go back decades and one can easily find people with Ds and Rs next to their names to share in blame. That’s all fine. But in the here and now? Sorry, calling it like I see it, the GOP is by far the bigger problem. I say that while retaining plenty of distaste for the Dems.

  40. andrew says:

    “Republicans hate government (except when it comes to your sex lives), so of course they can’t govern. They don’t want to govern. They want to burn the place down.”

    Who wouldn’t take the years the Republicans ran both houses of Congress (95-07) again? I mean, from a rational/pro-American viewpoint. Have the suicide attempt elections of 06 and 08 not taught you anything?

  41. An Interested Party says:

    Who wouldn’t take the years the Republicans ran both houses of Congress (95-07) again? I mean, from a rational/pro-American viewpoint.

    Oh yes, indeed…as long as there was also a Democrat in the White House to keep them on a short leash…see, the 90s were a little better than the first decade of this century…

  42. andrew says:

    “as long as there was also a Democrat in the White House to keep them on a short leash”

    LOL. The Republicans jammed a balanced budget down the throats of Clinton and the Leftstream media, despite all of the whining from the Left.

    “see, the 90s were a little better than the first decade of this century”

    The first half of the first decade of the 21st century was great also. Low unemployment and low inflation, but then came the suicide attempt elections. I hope future generations can experience what I did growing up if we can ever recover from the last 4 years.

  43. Rob in CT says:

    That’s a nice fantasy world you have there.

  44. Eric Florack says:

    @Tom Mathers: Agreed. THe idea that Obama actually was willing to move to the center is laughable. Oh, he’ll talk about it, but where are the specifics? Like trying to nail jello to a tree.

  45. Anonne says:

    @Eric Florack: Right, because he’s been this bastion of liberal purity. /sarcasm

    He moved to the center and, in pure unprincipled fashion, the Republicans moved even further right. He’s hardly the socialist dictator partisan hacks claim him to be. Even when he plays by the Republican playbook (see, e.g., Romneycare), it’s not good enough.