Mitch McConnell and John Boehner’s Republicans may control Congress now, but it’s an open question as to whether McConnell and Boehner control their own party caucuses. That’s an important consideration, because as they try to work out their deals with the White House, at some point they’ll have to convince President Barack Obama and the Democrats that they can deliver enough of their members. They can negotiate whatever compromises they want, but if their people revolt because they didn’t get enough and reject the bargains, then they’re just wasting time even trying.
There are all sorts of indications that they will not be able to guarantee the votes needed after the give-and-take is done. You have Ted Cruz in the Senate as well as his disciples in the House saying upfront that they’re not bending, and when it comes to giving up some of what they demand, they’re not interested.
Meanwhile, for the Democrats, Barack Obama is at the tag end of his presidency and suddenly has decided on a “No more Mr. Nice Guy” approach. Even after his party got “shellacked” in the midterms, he’s taking it to the Republicans like he never has before. And they’re foaming at the mouth. The leaked plans to take executive action that would, among other things, stop the deportation of millions of people in this country illegally is causing their heads to explode.
McConnell and Boehner are spending all their energy to prevent their troops from doing something precipitous and stupid. There is a lot of noise from their people that they should retaliate by forcing a government shutdown, or something equally confrontational. Of course, they’d be playing right into the Democrats’ hands, at least the ones who are thinking ahead to 2016’s race to elect the next POTUS, but principle is principle, and they’re not about to let some lame duck quack the whip.
On the face of it, talk of cooperation from both sides sounds like sanctimonious platitude. That’s because it is. The reality is that bipartisanship is a foolish fantasy floating in the toxic cesspool of Washington politics. The reality is that both sides have decided that the best tactic for the campaign wars is to litter the enemy’s road with land mines.
There is, however, another Pollyannaish way to look at all the bombast bombshells. They may be little more than opening positions — ways of establishing harsh starting points at the edges before cooler heads tediously move close to middle ground. By this faintly optimistic reckoning, unreasonable inflexibility really signals a willingness to ultimately resort to reasonable flexibility.
McConnell and Boehner are not rookies in this game. They’ve been playing it for years. At the White House, POTUS has the advantage of counsel from VPOTUS Joe Biden, who spent decades wheeling and dealing in the Senate, with, among others, Mitch McConnell.
So far, so good. But there are players on both sides who view any accommodation as total surrender. They’re usually the new guys in town, sent by the voters in Hooterville to stand up for their harsh views. Otherwise, they won’t get re-elected. Of course, they’re going to claim that they want to work for bipartisan solutions. It’s easy to say, but what’s left unsaid is their definition of compromise, which is that the other side caves in to all of their demands. That mindset makes statesmanship improbable.
But sure, they may as well try. They need to do something in the next couple of years, in addition to shooting artillery. Besides, the nation has some serious problems that need addressing immediately. Not negotiating for real would be ruinously insane. Unfortunately that pretty much describes the situation up till now.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.