Michael A. Cohen

The price of Republicans’ political success

The 114th Congress convened Tuesday in Washington. The Republicans control both the House and the Senate.
The 114th Congress convened Tuesday in Washington. The Republicans control both the House and the Senate.

Here’s pretty much everything you need to know about the state of the Republican Party today — more energy was devoted by Republicans this week to deposing the House Speaker John Boehner then to Steve Scalise, the number three Republican in the House who more than 10 years ago spoke to a white hate group founded by former Ku Klux Klan wizard, David Duke.

Apparently leading your party to the largest GOP majority in the House in more than eight decades is a greater sin than hanging out with racists. In reality, these stories are really two sides of the same coin — an indication of the price the party has paid for their political success.

On Boehner, those who unsuccessfully tried to unseat him are the more extreme and radicalized band of House Republicans. Their complaints are the usual litany of conservative grievances: insufficient ardor in repealing Obamacare, undoing the president’s executive order on immigration, cutting spending or reducing regulation. His latest sin: agreeing to a budget deal with the White House. Even though Boehner presides over what is probably the most radical House caucus in modern American history, he is not radical enough.


Of course this is a problem that Boehner and the Republican leadership created. For decades now, the GOP has nurtured a deeply reactionary and uncompromising group of conservative supporters. They demonized compromise and cooperation with Democrats; they have described government in the most negative terms imaginable and they’ve portrayed every Obama action with which they disagree as the first step toward national destruction. This approach was not without political success. It helped Republicans win control of the House and Senate, but by cultivating a political base that treats even the slightest deviation from conservative ideology as betrayal, it’s made it basically impossible for the party to govern. While Boehner survived this latest attempt to unseat him, that it even occurred is a reminder of the constraints that he will continue to face over the next two years. Boehner’s hapless speakership is a tribute to the dysfunction that has been birthed by this political strategy.

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The survival of Steve Scalise is very much a product of this strategy. Ordinarily speaking to a hate group — even inadvertently — would be the kiss of death in politics. But for years now Republicans have winked and nodded at America’s racist impulses in order to garner political support. From state’s rights to welfare queens, from Willie Horton to the “47 percent,” this has been the GOP playbook for decades. It’s the reason why today the Republican Party is almost uniformly a party of white people.

It’s also the reason why Republicans continue to lose Hispanic support but are incapable of showing flexibility on immigration. It’s the reason why the party continues to attack social welfare programs like disproportionately help poor, minorities. And it’s the reason Republican state officials brazenly try to limit the voting rights of African Americans. Playing on racial resentment is part of the DNA of the modern GOP. That Scalise described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” is pretty much everything you need to know about how the GOP has viewed racial politics for the past four decades.

So in the case of Scalise, Republicans will tut-tut about his “error in judgment” but defend him as a man of “good heart and good character.” In the end, keeping Scalise around won’t do much to hurt House Republicans who are deeply reliant on conservative white voters. For those who view American politics through a largely racial prism it might even be helpful. Of course, that won’t do much to boost Republican efforts to win back the White House two years from now. And as the country becomes demographically browner — and the GOP’s base white base of support dies off — it’s a recipe for long-term irrelevance.

That apparently is a problem for another day.



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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.