The President and the Republicans

Recent events in Texas and elsewhere have demonstrated that President Obama's most dependable ally during his presidency has been the Republican penchant for extremism coupled with bad timing. Only a few weeks ago, Obama's presidency was, while not quite in peril, at risk of being sidelined by assorted scandals, a still stagnant economy, failure to make progress on gun regulations and an absence new and compelling ideas. Now, thanks largely to Texas Governor Rick Perry and other anti-abortion radicals, nobody is talking about the IRS or Justice Department harassment of journalists. Moreover, while the whereabouts and future of Edward Snowden is still getting media attention, the NSA surveillance itself has fallen out of the news.

The plight of the Republican Party during the years Obama has been in office has been damaged because every time they begin to make some traction against the President, some nut metaphorically runs into the center of the political dialog yells "We hate women!" several times and runs out again, changing the subject and the political dynamic. This time the nut was Rick Perry, but it has been Todd Akin, Rush Limbaugh and others in recent years. Sweeping anti-abortion legislation, of the sort proposed by Perry, may help with the Republican base and in solid red states and districts, but it damages the Republican Party nationally and with swing voters.

The nature of political parties in the U.S. today is that there is no powerful center that can create a national message and impose discipline, or at least order, on the rest of the party. This is particularly true for the party that does not control the presidency. Accordingly, it is not realistic to expect Republican leaders to have much influence over people like Perry or Akin. This explains why it is so easy for Republican elected officials or candidates to take over the national story with their anti-women views, but it does not explain why this happens so frequently.

The Republican Party today has been so completely taken over by its socially conservative wing, that to a large extent, restricting women's rights is no longer a fringe view in the party, but is the core message, along with being against taxes and hating President Obama, of the party. The Republican Party can be expected to criticize Obama on potential scandals, but no longer has any pro-active plans or policies outside of the realm of social issues. This is a major problem in a country where, due to changing opinions and age replacement, socially conservative views are becoming less popular. Perhaps Republican leaders should be grateful that this week the Party was too focused on restricting women's rights to exhibit its reactionary side following the Supreme Court rulings on Proposition 8 and DOMA.

President Obama is fortunate that the Republican Party is both on the wrong side of history on social issues and too poorly organized to resist talking about these issues in language that is offensive to large proportions of the population. This has allowed Obama to pursue a damage control strategy that essentially means waiting for the Republicans to change the subject to something reactionary that sounds slightly crazy to much of the electorate.

A Republican Party that was more focused on winning elections and less on flaunting its radical views would not have let the American people forget about the IRS and the Justice Department scandals quite so quickly. The lack of Republican discipline on message and strategy gives a major strategic advantage to the Democrats. Unfortunately, it also means that the president is not held as accountable to the American people as he should be.

Republicans have been very tough on Obama, but in a way that only appeals to their base. Calling the President a socialist, questioning his citizenship and voting against everything he proposes has created a lot of noise around the president and has made it tougher for him to pass legislation, but it has not held him accountable. Even on health care reform, the signature piece of domestic legislation during Obama's presidency, the Republicans focused on bizarre talk of death panels and comparisons between Obama and Stalin so much that a serious discussion of health care reform never fully happened. Since then, other than occasional calls by various ambitious Republicans to overturn health care, there has been no substantive discussions of the extent to which it has been successful. Similarly, the IRS and Justice department issues will not be investigated or resolved, just knocked off the Republican agenda by another periodic bout of attempting to restrict women's rights. The Republicans have become the voice of an angry opposition but are no longer involved in governance in a meaningful way. This is good for Obama, but probably not for the country.