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House of Pain

Gerrymandering has been great for GOP congressmen, but poison for the party nationally

Getty Images/Pete Marovich

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the two big gay marriage cases it heard last week, it’s only a matter of time before the institution is legalized. Public acceptance is accelerating and will soon be overwhelming. Red-state Democrats are endorsing gay marriage by the day, and the Senate recently got its first and second Republican supporters. Even conservatives bitterly opposed to gay marriage concede the cause is hopeless. “I don’t care what the Supreme Court does,” the famed marriage enthusiast Rush Limbaugh bleated last week. “This is inevitable.” All of which makes you wonder: In this day and age, who would bother not simply condemning gay marriage, but funding the legal opposition of it?

And then you remember: Oh yeah, House Republicans would. It turns out that in 2011, when the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, the House Republicans pitched in millions of taxpayer money to ensure that the law would continue to bar gay spouses from receiving the same federal benefits that heterosexual spouses enjoy.

Suffice it to say, gay marriage is hardly the only issue on which House Republicans have managed to position themselves on the dicey side of public opinion. Their insistence on letting the government default on its debt unless the president accepted trillions in Medicare and Medicaid cuts drove their approval ratings to subterranean depths in the summer of 2011. Their refusal to deliver on $60 billion in aid for Hurricane Sandy victims earlier this year drew a rebuke from Chris Christie, one of the GOP’s biggest celebrities. Recently, as immigration reform has moved to the center of the Washington conversation, they’ve demonstrated their sympathy for the little guy by employing such terms of endearment as “wetbacks” while alternately describing immigrants as dogs, livestock, and terrorists. (Okay, those last three all came from Iowa Republican Steve King. Still…)

What explains the PR pileup that GOP elders can't seem to clear to the side of the road? Partly it’s the structural forces at work in American politics, which have reorganized the two parties along ideological lines at the same time the GOP has become much more conservative. But the more direct and mundane explanation is gerrymandering. Thanks to the way Republican legislatures drew congressional districts in 2000, the median House district leaned Republican by two points over the next decade—a big edge given the tiny margins that frequently decide competitive races. Since 2010, the built-in advantage has grown to three points. The result of all this gerrymandering is to give the Republicans a death grip on the House. In 2012, they won 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in all the House districts combined, but still managed a 33-seat majority.

There’s no question this hold on the House is a huge short-term advantage for the GOP, giving it the power to thwart a Democratic president even when his agenda has widespread support. (Look no further than the ongoing budget negotiations, in which the president’s preference for trimming the deficit through spending cuts and tax increases far outpolls the GOP’s cuts-only approach.) But the flip side of being so insulated from public opinion is, well, being so insulated from public opinion. Thanks to the relative safety of their seats, most Republican House members feel no particular need to adjust to the political trends that have enormous consequences for anyone who isn’t running in a gerrymandered district—like, say, the party’s presidential nominee. It’s killing the GOP nationally.

For example, pretty much every Republican official in Washington accepts the urgency of moderating the party’s position on immigration and (at least) its rhetoric on gay rights. These were among the key upshots of the comprehensive review RNC Chairman Reince Priebus released in March. The House GOP? Eh, they’re not so persuaded. One House conservative promptly mocked the “Hispanic panic” overtaking his party. When asked about his position on gay marriage just before Priebus’s goodwill tour, John Boehner’s answer was Corleone-esque. “I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” he told ABC’s Marth Raddatz. “And I can't imagine that position would ever change.”

Perhaps no stance has proven more costly to Republicans than their obsession with spending cuts. The GOP’s fortunes have been heading south ever since the spring of 2011, when the House passed Paul Ryan’s preposterously cruel budget. It soon lost a special election in a safe Republican district, as the Democrat battered her opponent over Ryan’s proposed gutting of Medicare. Since then, the House has gamely passed similar versions of Ryan’s budget twice more, allowing Obama to paint the national GOP as anti-senior, anti-middle class, anti-kid, anti-disabled person and bent on the defunding of medical research, the FAA, national parks, and basic environmental protections. Not for nothing has Louisiana Governor (and 2016 hopeful) Bobby Jindal warned Republicans in recent months that, “We must not become the party of austerity.” 

In fact, so sharply has the mood of Republican elites turned against budgetary masochism that Ryan himself—whom, you may recall, conservative pundits pleaded that Mitt Romney pick as his running mate eight short months ago—looks finished on the national stage. “Ryan has become so identified with his budget plan it could be hard for him to shed the austerity label,” read his de facto obituary in Politico last month, which hinted that Ryan wouldn’t even run for president in 2016.

Alas, it’s almost certainly too late to save the GOP’s budgetary boy wonder. But some in the House leadership think it’s still possible to rehabilitate the rest of the congressional wing. In early February, Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a speech entitled “Making Life Work,” which downplayed belt-tightening in favor of kinder, gentler initiatives on education, health care, and job growth. Basically, it was Cantor doing his best impression of Bill Clinton circa 1992, at least rhetorically. When it came to policy, he did not propose anything remotely ambitious or even new.

And yet somehow even this was too much for some House conservatives. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina (who ran unopposed in a district Mitt Romney carried by 20 points) harrumphed that slashing spending is “how you grow the economy.” He added: “When you say spending cuts, I call it fiscal responsibility and I call it reduction of borrowing.”

As I say, reality isn’t really the strong suit of the House GOP’s rank and file. But, then, why would it be? At this rate, the party is destined to keep losing presidential races, Senate races, governor’s races … student council elections. But as long as they can avoid outright criminality or damning sexual improprieties—admittedly not always a sure thing—they’ve got the House majority for as long as they want it.