Today’s coverage of the State of the Union has been uniquely interesting to watch. Yes, someone on MSNBC has cracked a joke about Rubio’s thirsty moment every two minutes, but generally speaking, the response has been a mixed bag. Democrats aren’t particularly fired up. They liked the passion of the gun control refrain, but were taken aback when Obama said people could vote no if they wanted. Republicans didn’t like it because it was Obama, but not even their commentary has been particularly charged. Much of the speech was expected, and the surprises that did pop up were not monumental in scale.
There’s something about that speech that was quietly powerful. There was some element to it that’s hard to point to as a catalyst in the rhetorical mix, but poignant nonetheless. It stuck in my mind like a small barb I couldn’t quite locate. There was some game changing dynamic in the mix, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was.
I was watching The Cycle, which I usually don’t. I feel like the commentary is a bit caricaturish sometimes, and sometimes it’s just dull, but I couldn’t find the remote (luckily this time) and I caught the group’s banter with former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. Again, not my favorite political figure, but he unwittingly hit the nail on the head as they discussed whether the gun control section of the speech was really that strong.
“It’s the ask.”
Obama had not demanded that Congress pass a specific bill; he had demanded they vote. As Rendell pointed out, that puts more establishment Republicans in danger than anything else. If you’re a moderate or traditional Republican, representing affluent suburbs or an urban area, do you really want to be on record as voting against background checks right now? When 74% of NRA Members support them, on top of 88% of the general public? Probably not. See, if you do vote against it, you look pretty extreme, given the timing and current public climate, and that hurts your general election prospects. By demanding a vote – not passage of a bill, but a vote – Obama paints the GOP into a very uncomfortable corner.
Rendell’s characterization of the power of the ask was dead on, but he underestimates the scope of its strength. There are two things worth considering. First off, like he did on gun control, Obama focused on elements of wider policy realms that, broadly speaking, should have general appeal in the populous. Ideas like a bipartisan committee on voting, improving preschool opportunities for children, and expanding services for our vets are pretty vanilla. He focused on the fact that these initiatives would be paid for without expanding the deficit. The speech was certainly light on details, but the ideas were sort of hard to hate. A vote against voting or the vets is going to be just as ugly as a vote against background checks.
Second, the tactic he used on gun control was, in some shape or form, present on each of these vanilla topics. No, he didn’t directly ask for a vote on each of them, but this isn’t just about the “They deserve a vote” refrain. This is about when he asked them why they hadn’t voted on refinancing yet. This is about when he told them to pursue climate legislation like they had in the past, or he would take matters into his own hands. This is about when he said some variation of “let’s get this done” 11 different times. No, Obama didn’t just ask for a vote. The reason his speech was exceptional was that he asked Congress to do its job by teeing them up on issues where defying him would be the equivalent of political suicide.
Pretty deft political strategy, really. It bodes well for Obama accomplishing a decent amount of his agenda.
But there’s more to this story. See, Republicans know the consequences in a general election if they vote against these ideas today. However, if they vote for them, they might not see that general election at all. Think about it. On one hand, if they vote against these ideas, they are characterized by Democrats for heartless partisan party hacks. On the other hand, if they vote for these ideas, they are RINOs, and characterized as being pushovers for Democrats. They’re anti-gun, pro-nanny state, and big spenders.
At least, that’s what their Tea Party challengers will say, and in the Conservative base- the adamant voters that participate in the primaries- that’s all it will take. We saw this happen in the last election cycle, as Dick Lugar was unseated by the uncompromising Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. What happened there? Mourdock got creamed in the general, after offensive remarks about rape victims were made.
What am I getting at? Obama’s seemingly meager “ask” may cause the Republican Party to self-destruct. If they vote against the President’s fairly tame agenda, they’re too extreme and get killed in the general election. If they vote for it, they’re not conservative enough, and lose in the primaries to a more of a far right candidate who will consequently be killed in the general election for being too extreme. Don’t think that’s a concern? See Karl Rove’s ill-fated attempt to bury Tea Party candidates. They knew they were in trouble before the President’s speech. They’re really screwed now.
The Republican Party is in trouble, and they have been for some time now. While they were in denial during the 2012 election cycle, more and more in the GOP leadership are beginning to recognize that something’s gotta give. The strategy of playing to the base has faltered, because the base is no longer large enough to sustain them. A platform that once represented a great deal of a largely white and Christian population has now aged out of relevance, as the base they appealed to have since passed or evolved. The generations that have come since have a hard time identifying with… anything Republicans are saying anymore.
Long-term, ultra conservative views on reproductive rights and same sex marriage are a losing proposition for them. For the most part, even those who aren’t fans of abortion don’t think the Government should be forcing religion down people’s throats, and insurance companies covering birth control doesn’t seem unreasonable in a world where we’re covering Viagra. Oh, and a little tip? The GOP should just stop talking about rape. They’re really bad at it.
In an aging population, proposing massive cuts to Medicare or Social Security to prove fiscal discipline is poisonous- no matter how necessary they may be. Older voters don’t want their support endangered, and their grandkids don’t want to see their grandparents suffer. In an era of high unemployment, cutting things like unemployment or Medicaid is a terrible idea. Younger voters can’t find jobs and need those programs, and their grandparents are worried about what would happen to their grandbabies without the government support, so those cuts will, again, cost you on both ends of the age spectrum.
Today’s America is also very tired of politics as usual. This is not a uniquely Republican problem, but because their platform seems so antiquated, they’re taking the fall for it. The criticisms are not necessarily without merit; how many times have they attempted to repeal Obamacare out of the House, knowing full well the Senate would never support it? Still, in reality, the Republicans have their hands tied. They could change their platform. They could change their tactics. If they did, slowly but surely, they would find their base voting in young faces with relics for minds that the general population can’t stand.
In other words, unless primary voting demographics shift for Republicans, they’re looking a little bit doomed. I may be pretty left leaning, but this downward spiral is not something I celebrate. We need strong voices disagreeing with one another. If we don’t challenge each other – if there is no one asking questions and hitting hard – we’re lost before we even get started.
So we know the ask. Now, Republicans, let’s hear your answer.