WASHINGTON — The central issue in this fall's elections could turn out to be a sleeper: What kind of Republican Party does the country want?
It is, to be sure, a strange question to put to an electorate in which independents and Democrats constitute a majority. Yet there is no getting around this: The single biggest change in Washington over the last five years has been a GOP shift to a more radical form of conservatism. This, in turn, has led to a kind of rejectionism that views cooperation with President Obama as inherently unprincipled.
For those looking for a different, more constructive Republicanism, this is not a great year to stage the battle. Because of gerrymandering, knocking the current band of Republicans out of control of the House is a herculean task. And most of the competitive seats in the fight for the Senate are held by Democrats in Republican states. Republicans are now favored in the open seats of South Dakota and West Virginia, and probably also in Montana.
Nonetheless, there is as yet no sense of the sort of tide that in 2010 gave a Republicanism inflected with tea party sensibilities dominance in the House. The core narrative of the campaign has yet to be established. Democrats seeking re-election are holding their own in Senate races in which they are seen as vulnerable.
And then there was last week's House fiasco over resolving the refugee crisis at our border. It served as a reminder that Republican leaders are handcuffing themselves by choosing to appease their most right-wing members rather than pursuing middle-ground legislation by collaborating with Democrats.
The bill that House Speaker John Boehner was trying to pass last Thursday already tilted well-rightward. It provided Obama with only a fraction of what he said was needed to deal with the crisis — $659 million, compared with the president's request for $3.7 billion. It also included provisions to put deportations on such a fast track that Obama threatened to veto it. A White House statement said that its "arbitrary timelines" were both impractical and inhumane.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi happened to be meeting with a group of journalists when the bill collapsed. "In order for them to pass a bill, they had to make it worse and worse and worse," she said, referring to Boehner's efforts to placate members who have entered into an unusual cross-chamber alliance with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to foil even conservative legislation if they regard it as insufficiently pure.
On Friday, the GOP leadership pushed the measure still further right and added $35 million for border states to get it passed at an unusual evening session — but not before Republicans themselves had complained loudly about dysfunction in their own ranks.
Last week's legislative commotion could change the political winds by putting the costs of the GOP's flight from moderation into stark relief. House Republicans found themselves in the peculiar position of simultaneously suing Obama for executive overreach and then insisting that he could act unilaterally to solve the border crisis.
Pelosi, for her part, went out of her way to praise "the Grand Old Party that did so much and has done so much for our country." Commending the opposing party is not an election year habit, but her point was to underscore that Republicans had been "hijacked" by a "radical right wing" that is not simply "anti-government" but also "anti-governance."
On balance, Washington gridlock has hurt Democrats more than Republicans by dispiriting moderate and progressive constituencies that had hoped Obama could usher in an era of reform. The key to the election will be whether Democrats can persuade these voters that the radical right is the real culprit in their disappointment — and get them to act accordingly on Election Day.