What best explains the division we see among conservatives these days? Is it ideology, strategy, or just tactics? All three factor in. But I believe the biggest source of division is cognitive.
Some conservatives perceive that the left is bent on radically transforming American values, institutions, and ways of living, and will use almost any tactic, regardless of its legality, to accomplish the transformation. Others perceive the current moment as a normal clash of opposing parties and opinions — serious, but not exceptional.
I am in the former camp, but my purpose here is not to argue the question. Rather, I want to discuss some implications of the cognitive divide.
The Tea Party movement (as its name implies) signaled the beginning of a mainstream conservative movement that viewed contemporary Democrats as more than just practitioners of liberal business as usual. In 2010, it helped sweep into Congress dozens of new members who believe, or at least professed, that American liberty is on the line.
These members weren’t elected to improve the lot of illegal immigrants, to promote leniency for drug felons, or to reach compromises with Democrats over how much the federal government will grow. They were elected to stop the Obama agenda in its tracks and, if possible, to roll it back.
Legislative rollback has not occurred; it was never a realistic possibility with Obama in the White House. But Republicans stymied the left’s legislative agenda. There was a close call on immigration reform, but since 2010 Congress has essentially shut out Obama legislatively.
The sequester, a big goose-egg for Obama, is perhaps the best illustration of how things changed after 2010. Democrats were confident that Republicans wouldn’t consent to budget cuts if they had a substantial impact on military spending.
In a normal political moment, the Dems would have been right, but in this moment, they were wrong. Republicans held the line on spending cuts to the great consternation of Obama.
John Boehner and his fellow “establishment” Republicans chafed throughout this period of strong resistance to Obama. Boehner would have loved to cut a grand budget bargain with the president. Eric Cantor would have loved amnesty-style immigration reform.
However, Boehner, Cantor, and the rest felt constrained by Tea Party movement. They even went along for a while with a partial government shutdown, even though their every instinct told them (not without justification) that this move was ill-advised.
Now, only a little more than a year remains of Obama’s presidency. Since the beginning of this year, moreover, he has even fewer Democrats in Congress than he had during the legislatively barren period of 2011-2014. One would expect, then, that his presidency would simply peter out, at least from a legislative standpoint. Even had there been no Tea Party movement, Obama should be the lamest of lame ducks.
Yet, he may not be. More than a few congressional Republicans suddenly feel the urge to work with Obama and his loyal liberal legislators. The bottled up instinct to legislate and to deal is coming to the fore.
A central element of Obama’s leftist ideology is the slanderous proposition that our “racist” criminal justice system has produced “incarceration nation” — a regime in which Blacks needlessly languish in jail thanks to a misguided (or worse) war on drugs. Suddenly, key conservative legislators on the Senate Judiciary Committee have helped liberals write legislation that would put thousands of drug dealers back on the streets.
Meanwhile, the House is poised to elect Paul Ryan its Speaker. Ryan is an ardent supporter of amnesty-style immigration reform. To him, it’s a matter of religious conviction. In addition, Ryan probably yearns to strike a grand budget deal with the Democrats. For him, such work is far more fulfilling that saying “no” to Democrats.
Indeed, Ryan apparently doesn’t believe that the House has done the nation a service by saying “no” to the Dems. He is on record as stating that the Republican House has “fall[en] short” and, indeed, “add[ed]” to “the country’s problems.”
Ryan’s urge to compromise and to deal makes sense if you believe that this is a normal political moment. Normally, when push comes to shove, Republicans and Democrats work together, if not to solve our nation’s problems then at least jointly to kick them down the road.
But if it’s true that Democrats are on a mission to radically transform at all costs, then seeking compromise with them will usually be a mistake because meaningful common ground won’t exist. This doesn’t mean that Republicans should never compromise. There may be circumstances when dealing with the Dems is necessary as a tactical matter. In these cases, the “bargains” should be minimalist, not “grand.”
Republican voters seem to agree that the Age of Obama is not a normal political period. That’s why four of the five top-polling GOP presidential candidates either have never held political office or (in the case of Ted Cruz) have held it only briefly and used it to hurl bombs.
GOP voters seem to be thinking “outside the box.” Another way of looking at it, though, is that they perceive our politics as having moved into a new box in the Age of Obama.