Apocalypse now, forever and always

The Political Circus

The debt ceiling was raised yesterday, and the government reopened, meaning the Republicans have lost.

For most of the week, they refused to allow a vote on the debt ceiling, repeating their demands for a major change in Obamacare. They failed to repeal any meaningful part of Obamacare, but more importantly, they failed to stick together as a party. Their brinkmanship brought nothing but blame, and their party has become more fragmented as a result.

It wasn’t always like this.

For most of the past 20 years, the House — when controlled by Republicans — has operated under the Hastert Rule, or the “majority of the majority rule.” Named for Dennis Hastert, who served as Speaker of the House for most of the Bush years, the Hastert Rule stipulates that no bill will be brought to the floor unless it has support from the majority of the majority party — in this case, the majority of Republicans. Primarily, the Speaker follows the rule to ensure he will retain the speakership — it’s generally not good politics to bring measures opposed by the majority of your caucus to the floor.

For the Republicans, however, the Hastert Rule has been essential to party strength. While the Democrats control the White House and Senate, the Hastert Rule has allowed Republicans to keep Democrat-sponsored bills out of the House, giving them leverage in their negotiations with Reid and Obama.

In 2011, the Hastert Rule brought the country to the brink of disaster, as it looked like the majority of House Republicans would refuse to raise the debt ceiling. But a unified Republican party pushed President Obama to concede to a wide array of spending cuts, now known as the sequester. At the time, it was a victory for the Republicans. But their continued insistence on following the Hastert Rule pushed the Republican Party further and further to the right until the “majority of the majority” was no longer in touch with the American people.

Tensions finally came to a head in December 2012 when the House Republicans picked the fiscal cliff as their next rallying point. With unemployment hovering around 8 percent and the imminent expiration of the Bush tax cuts threatening to push the country back into recession, the House Republicans once again refused to act unless Obama offered concessions. But the split between the moderates and the extremists was becoming too problematic for the nation. Recognizing this, Speaker John Boehner then allowed a vote on the fiscal cliff even when almost two-thirds of his party opposed it. The chasm caused by the polarization of the “majority of the majority” became too wide for the Republican leadership to bridge, and the fragmentation of the party has now caused a split that threatens the very essence of the GOP.

So what happens next? What happens after disaster? For the past few years, the Republicans have been pursuing a high-risk, low-reward strategy, holding the economy hostage to win minor concessions from the White House. Sure, they’ve gotten spending cuts, such as sequestration, but nowhere has there been the major rework of entitlements or taxes that the Republicans have been hoping for. In exchange, however, they’ve had to gamble that the Democrats would not call their bluff, using issues like the debt ceiling in order to raise the stakes so high that just flinching would cause catastrophe. But this time, as we approached the turn and the Democrats showed no signs of backing down, the Republicans were forced to play their empty hand.

After this crisis, the Republican leadership will have to reconsider its position in a way the Democrats never had to.

When Obama thought about the 2010 election cycle, he realized the defeats his party suffered had little to do with the foundational ideas of his party. Increasing taxes on the wealthy, promoting comprehensive immigration reform and implementing national education reform were still ideas that were popular with the American people, who were mainly tired of low growth and high unemployment. The Democrats had a solid core of ideas — it was just their execution that needed work. But when the Republicans think about their party platform, will they, too, find their core solid, or will they discover that their reliance on extreme right-wing groupthink and the Hastert Rule has driven the GOP too far to the right?

The Republican Party will need to rethink its ideas or face extinction — the American public is no longer sold on the pro-life, pro-gun policies that compose such an integral part of the Republican platform, and neither do they appreciate a crisis every time the government approaches its debt ceiling.

Today marks the beginning of a new era for the Republican Party. Because after this most recent brush with apocalypse, they must adapt or die.

Kevin Gu writes the Thursday column on politics. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @gukevin888.