The Republican Party in a Second Obama Term

I read Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover piece on how a second term could elevate Obama to what is sometimes called a “transformational” president, one who leaves the country profoundly altered in his wake. I resisted its conclusions at first, mostly because they are predicated on the assumption that Congressional Republicans will stop fighting the president tooth and nail and actually contribute somewhat to the stewardship of the nation. I couldn’t see why they would bother. After all, it’s not like anyone on our side thought any more highly of George W. Bush in 2008, did we?

But I thought about it some more, and I begin to see how cooperating with the president might be of strategic importance for the GOP.

If I am one of the few remaining sentient Republicans with influence (say, Karl Rove), I’m worried. Barack Obama is almost certain to be reelected, perhaps by a very considerable margin. But beyond that, over the course of the next election cycle I’m going to lose my most effective weapon against the current administration: the economy. Barring the collapse of the Eurozone or something similarly catastrophic, unemployment in the U.S. is going to continue to decline, demand is going to continue to increase and, who knows, the ACA might end up saving us money after all. Come 2016, it’s not likely that “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” is going to play any better than it does today.

So the GOP in Congress has two options. One, dig in and fight even harder. Filibuster everything, throw up even more red-meat, no-chance-in-hell-of-passing legislation to show the Tea Party you haven’t given up, and do your damnedest to deny Obama any achievements of substance. Then maybe, come 2016, you can point to him as a do-nothing president who spent four years sitting on his hands. Of course, he can always point to the Republicans as the chief impediment to his accomplishing anything, but hey, that’s what Fox News is for.

The second option is to get on the bandwagon. I know the economy is going to improve. So do I want to let Obama and his party take all the credit? No. I’m going to want at least one popular, high-profile piece of legislation — a tax reform bill or some new budget arrangement — with Republican fingerprints on it. Obama will be more than happy to sign on. That way, when 2016 rolls around, I can fight the Democrats on a more or less even playing field.

My other worry, if I’m Karl Rove, is that waiting to succeed Obama is potentially the only candidate who can match the president’s popularity: Hillary Clinton. The only way Hillary isn’t the nominee in ’16 is if she decides not to run. And who am I going to put out there to go head-to-head with her? When it comes to Republican presidential candidates, the public is crazied out. Perry, Bachman, Gingrich et al will not get within shouting distance of the nomination again. My only hope is to put up a moderate who can impersonate a responsible statesman and show some willingness to compromise and listen to evidence. Maybe, as The Daily Show has joked, Jeb Bush. Maybe even Jon Huntsman — he was gone from the scene so fast most people won’t even remember he ran in ’12. And the only way I can get a candidate like that to throw his hat in the ring is to create an environment in which he won’t have to spend every day pandering to coffin-dodging lunatics. Thus, the word has to go out: tone it down. Work with the president. Compromise. Who knows? The Republican party may embrace sanity as a survival strategy.

Whatever happens, this election cycle has made me realize that I am deriving far too much schadenfreude from the Republican party’s recent travails. What we have been seeing since the midterm elections of 2006 has been a party whose rhetorical chickens are increasingly coming home to roost, a party whose media apparatchiks and alternate-history spouting frauds have fatally insulated it from the real world and from what most voters are actually thinking and feeling. It’s hard not to feel some satisfaction as the Romney campaign, goaded by a paranoid and incoherent Tea Party base, swings wildly again and again while never landing a solid blow on the president. They can’t understand why what is obvious to them — e.g., Obama’s anti-American animus — completely fails to resonate with the average voter. To which I say, “Sucks, doesn’t it?”.

But the grownup in me knows this is wrong. There is nothing positive about one of the two major parties in the United States disappearing so far down a rabbit hole of its own making. There is no chance of any substantive improvement taking place in this country while half the political system continues to sit on its hands. So while the partisan kid in me enjoys the GOP’s political impotence, I am fervently hoping that something like the scenario I paint above will come to pass — even at the risk of a third president Bush in 2016.