Don't believe the hype: The Republican Party is alive and well
Is the Republican Party dying? Is it on the verge of ceasing to function as a national party? These are the questions swirling around Washington following the failure of the House GOP caucus to immediately replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner. It is an incredibly juicy narrative for the political trade press, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who stunned his colleagues by abruptly dropping out of the speakership race, only added to the melodrama by declaring the party needed "to hit rock bottom."
Give me a break.
The Republican Party still controls a solid majority of statehouses and governorships. It also boasts one of the largest House majorities in modern history, and this in an era of extreme polarization. The House GOP developed a record of unremitting hostility to the Obama administration before the 2014 election, and was re-elected in larger numbers on that record. Republicans have gained 69 seats since Barack Obama became president. Rock bottom? C'mon dude.
The riddle is this: The Republican House majority has great numerical strength and very little power. It is awkward like a teenager who just underwent a huge growth spurt, but is not yet licensed to drive. Hence the morbid self-obsession of its leadership class. This House majority cannot, like the Obama administration, blow off steam by issuing executive orders or sending marching orders to various parts of the executive branch. It can't deliver much that is tangible. That's frustrating. And it leads to epic fights over mere tactics, like whether the GOP has the mandate to shut the government down over funding for Planned Parenthood.
And yes, it leads to brinksmanship, too. But the truth is that very often a crazy high-stakes fight over raising the debt ceiling has only a diffuse political cost, whereas voting on legislation that can get through the Senate and the White House can have a dangerous, concentrated one for some members. The reason the job of speaker is so unenviable is that he has no power to push through his party's agenda. So you settle for raising money, keeping the back-benchers happy, engaging in Jesuitical debates about the orthodoxy of oppositional tactics, and explaining the results to the public.
Furthermore, the House majority is doing a fine job of opposition, and shows no signs of failing in that regard. Obama may be able to issue executive orders. But there's a long list of things he's not doing that he might like to try: comprehensive immigration reform, climate change legislation, gun control, the re-imposition of fairness doctrines, the watering-down of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or the enactment of the Equality Act. Just by being there, the GOP House majority is stopping quite a lot.
A truly dysfunctional GOP majority would be one that unpredictably passes Democratic agenda items, in a way that antagonized or demoralized GOP voters. Or it would pass legislation so unpopular as to ruin the chances of a Republican candidate for president. The GOP-controlled Congress' theoretical unpopularity (reflected in every poll) is in fact the unpopularity of the institution and of government generally. The people that vote keep sending them there. And as long as a viable Republican candidate emerges from the presidential primary, he or she will have an almost even shot at winning the White House and giving the House majority things to pass.
The only fissure within the Republican Party that is truly dangerous in the long term is the one over immigration, which has divided Republican donors and voters. But this is the manifestation of a larger populist/elitist political divide that cuts across American politics altogether. And still, this is nothing like the substantial regional divisions that hounded the Democratic House majority in the mid-20th century.
The House GOP majority will begin to be functional again once it is matched with a Republican president who can deliver their constituents the goods that come with occasional compromises. And it will also be functional again under a Democratic administration if it shrinks in size, and operates under the discipline caused by a precarious electoral situation.
Until then, it's just an awkward giant.