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It's Not a Fever! How Obama Can Break the House Republicans

Earlier this week Politico ran a piece about the mood of the House GOP that was highly revealing, if not quite the way the authors intended. The supposed take-away was that conservatives are so amped up and ornery they won’t think twice about leaving the debt ceiling where it is, consequences be damned. “GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes,” the piece warned. Which is to say, pretty much the standard meshugas we’ve come to expect from John Boehner's nuthouse.

But when you read between the lines of the Politico piece, the thinking of House Republicans looked a lot more rational. The upshot seemed to be that Boehner won’t let the government default on its liabilities, and that his members will settle for something much less damaging – a government shutdown – if they don’t get the cuts they want. (They will have the opportunity to engineer this a few weeks after the likely debt ceiling vote, when Congress has to pass a bill funding the government for the rest of the year.) “[Boehner] may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” a GOP leadership adviser told Politico, “so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.” The quote was meant to be ominous but was actually quite reassuring. 

Ever since November, Washington has marveled at the “fever” the president hoped his re-election would break. House Republicans announced it was emphatically not broken when they resisted tax hikes until the grisly end of the fiscal cliff negotiations. But the fact that the deal got done at all suggests “fever” isn’t quite the right metaphor, at least not for most of the party. Yes, there are lunatics in the House of Representatives. And, yes, their lunacy isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to in order for the government to function. 

The biggest problem with Obama’s fever metaphor is that it treats Republicans as monolithic. This wasn’t such a stretch during his first term, when the GOP calculated that relentless obstruction was the best way to undermine him, a goal they were united around. Back then, his gain was the GOP's loss, and vice versa. But with Obama having run his last campaign, the game is no longer zero-sum. Up to a point, Republicans need not fear his rising popularity, so long as they become more popular too. And this has created divisions within the Republican Party. 

It’s useful in particular to sort House Republicans into three groups: moderates, pragmatic conservatives, and hard-core conservatives. The moderates have to run in closely divided districts and prefer to hew to the center when possible. The pragmatic conservatives tend to be in somewhat safer seats. But because they’re in a stronger position politically when their party is more popular, they have an interest in boosting the party’s overall image with voters. Finally, the hard-core conservatives are either jihadi extremists who value ideological purity above all, or pols who worry more about potential primary challengers than their general election opponents. They have no problem if the party is scorned nationally so long as they preserve their conservative bona fides. 

What fraction of the 233 House Republicans does each group represent? It’s the key question given the so-called Hastert Rule, the longstanding House Republican practice of only allowing votes on bills if a majority of the caucus supports them. Thanks to that rule, the hard-core conservatives can theoretically veto anything that comes before the House. If there are 117 of them, the rest of us are out of luck. 

Fortunately, the number of these conservatives appears to be much smaller than most people assume. I base this on the outcome of Boehner’s widely derided “Plan B” during the fiscal cliff negotiations, the logic of which was to pass a tax increase on millionaires in order to give Republicans a PR boost and strengthen Boehner’s negotiating position. In other words, it was all about helping the party politically at the cost of some ideological purity—the kind of exercise pragmatic conservatives should have supported but the irreconcilables would reject. According to this piece in The Hill, Plan B died when Boehner couldn’t convince some 25-30 holdouts to vote his way. Even those who understood what Boehner was up to complained that it would be “too hard to explain how it wasn't a tax increase” in a primary, as one member put it.

Depending on how you interpret that 25-30 vote figure, it implies the House has about 50 hard-core conservatives. (At the time, Boehner could afford to lose 24 votes thanks to the size of his majority, so I assume he came 25-30 votes short of holding his losses to 24.) Which means that the conservative extremists only represent about one-fifth of the House Republicans. I’d guess moderates make up no more than one-third, based on the 85 Republicans who voted for the final fiscal cliff bill. Which means the pragmatic conservatives make up roughly half the Republican caucus. 

If these numbers are even remotely accurate – and they’re going to be slightly off because I’m basing them on votes from the last Congress, whose composition has changed a bit – then Democrats don’t need to break the fever of the hard-core conservatives to get anything done. They just need to isolate (quarantine?) them so they don’t infect the pragmatic conservatives. And the way to do that is to promise Republicans a political beating if the pragmatics lock arms with the crazies. 

The evidence suggests this message has been received in recent weeks. It’s easy to look at the final fiscal-cliff vote, which 150-odd Republicans opposed, and assume that only the moderates came around. In fact, the reason Boehner was able to bring it up for a vote at all—in violation of the Hastert Rule—was that the pragmatic conservatives were with him too. That’s not just literally true, in that Boehner gave his troops the option of effectively killing the compromise, and he appeared to get few takers. It’s also true more figuratively, in that Boehner apparently wasn’t worried about pragmatic conservatives turning on him when he stood for re-election as Speaker two days later. "[I]n the end, most of our members wanted this to pass, but they didn't want to vote for it," he later told The Wall Street Journal. And the reason they wanted it to pass is that the public would have beat the party senseless for rejecting a deal, having largely accepted Obama’s case that taxes should rise on the wealthy. 

Even more encouraging, the cliff deal wasn’t the only example of this dynamic recently. On Tuesday night, Boehner broke the Hastert Rule all over again, bringing up a $50 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill that only 49 Republicans voted for. As before, pragmatic conservatives were almost certainly behind his decision to do this, even if they didn’t end up supporting the bill. Also as before, it’s almost certainly the case that their views on this were driven by anxieties over public opinion, which was shaped in this instance by high-profile Republicans like Chris Christie

The lesson in all this for Obama is simple: Don’t bother engaging Republican leaders behind closed doors. The only way to move the leadership is to move pragmatic conservatives. And the only way to move pragmatic conservatives is to arrange it so that the political consequences of siding with the pure conservatives are brutal.

To his credit, the president has opened the debt-limit fight doing just that. “If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed,” he said at his press conference on Monday. “We might not be able to pay our troops, or honor our contracts with small business owners.” Those words may not break a conservative’s fever. But they should make anyone sitting next to him flee as quickly as possible.