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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Republican’s Warning to His Purity-Obsessed Party

Rarely these days do we see Republicans writing thoughtful analyses of their party’s present and future. There’s a notable exception in today’s New York Times, “Anarchy in the House,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.” An excerpt:

Years ago, I wrote a history of the Republican civil war between the moderates and radicals of the Goldwater era. I’m sufficiently alarmed, watching history repeat itself, that I now work as a research consultant for the Main Street Partnership, an organization of over 70 members of Congress who represent the moderate-conservative wing of the Republican Party. Their rivals are members of the Freedom Caucus, who would rather close the government than compromise.
Once again, the battle is between Republicans who want to govern and those who don’t. The radicals have no realistic alternative solutions of their own. Even to contemplate the negotiations and compromises such policies entail would sully their ideological purity.
Senator Goldwater, despite his brave talk of repeal, was an isolated, powerless legislator. The extremists who opposed John A. Boehner as speaker are likewise a small faction without the ability to accomplish any positive program. InsideGov, a government watchdog site, recently came up with a list of the least effective members of Congress, as determined by the percentage of bills they sponsored that went on to pass committee. Ideological extremism correlates closely with legislative impotence.
That’s unsurprising, since many members of the Freedom Caucus put a higher priority on scoring purity points than on carrying out the nation’s business. Its chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, is, by this accounting, the second-least effective member of Congress. The only one who’s even less effective is another longtime critic of Mr. Boehner, Representative Steve King of Iowa, not one of whose 94 sponsored bills has passed the committee stage. Most of Mr. Boehner’s harshest critics lurk at the bottom of the Lugar Center’s Bipartisanship Index. Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who triumphantly tweeted “Today the establishment lost” after Mr. Boehner’s resignation, is ranked last.
The Republican Party’s unhappy ideological adventure in the early ’60s ended in disaster. Goldwater not only lost the election in a landslide, but he dragged down the entire Republican ticket. The main result of conservative overreach was to hand President Lyndon B. Johnson the liberal supermajority he needed to pass Medicare and Medicaid.
The present resurgence of anti-governing conservatism is also likely to end badly for Republicans. The extremists have the ability to disrupt the Congress, but not to lead it. Their belief that shutdowns will secure real concessions is magical thinking, not legislative realism. And the more power they gain, the less likely it becomes that a Republican-controlled Congress can pass conservative legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.

In terms of raw political advantage, all of this gives Dems realistic optimism about 2016, perhaps even the possibility of a landslide. But the tragedy in the GOP’s descent into scorched-earth partisanship is the lost opportunity – progress for all Americans, had the Republicans negotiated for compromises to benefit millions. Instead, a landslide drubbing now looks like the best hope for restoring reason to the GOP.

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