Republicans and Their Demons

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 7:40 AM PDT

What's the smart play for Republicans regarding Obama's jobs package? I think it's pretty simple: stay calm, pass one or two items so that you don't look mindlessly obstructive on an issue that's important to voters, and call it a day. The effect this has on the economy won't be big enough to materially affect the election, so why not?

The big question, of course, is whether Republicans are still capable of playing smart politics these days. Matt Yglesias points us to a Politico story suggesting that many conservatives are already griping about passing even a few small parts of Obama's jobs bill:

"Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?" said one senior House Republican aide who requested anonymity to discuss the matter freely. "I just don't want to co-own the economy by having to tout that we passed a jobs bill that won't work or at least won't do enough."

…"To assume that we're naturally for these things because we've been for them does not mean we will be for them if they cause debt, if they [have] tax increases and if they take money from the free-enterprise sector, which creates jobs," said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who heads up the House Republican campaign arm.

These two quotes encapsulate the problems facing the GOP: on the one hand, their all-but-complete addiction to mindless obstructionism as a legislative strategy these days, and on the other, a tea party wing that's fanatically contemptuous of any ideological deviation. These are very different things: One is a scorched-earth tactical approach to politics and the other is a scorched-earth political faction with no taste for ideological compromise. Either of them alone might be enough to keep the GOP from acting in its own best interests, and both of them together may present a barrier that's simply insurmountable. Their voices were fairly muted in the immediate aftermath of Obama's speech, but they'll gain strength and vitriol as actual legislation starts to become more concrete.

So the question is, can the GOP's political pros keep these parts of their electoral id reined in long enough to act in their own rational self-interest? Or have obstructionism and tea partyism simply become too deeply ingrained in their governing strategy and political coalition to be turned off even briefly when it makes sense? The debt ceiling battle was inconclusive on this front: Republicans did manage to find a compromise eventually, but the obstructionist/tea party sentiments in the party sure kept them from finding one for a very long time. With a little bit less at stake this time, and with the supercommittee sellout already on the books, there just might not be any taste for further restraint. We'll see.

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