It was a busy week in the nation’s capital, starting with the inauguration ceremonies on Monday. But by Thursday, the president’s speech, which had delighted his political base and had infuriated the opposition, was already back page news.
Replacing it were the apparent cave-in by House Republicans on the debt ceiling issue and the Congressional testimony before both House and Senate committees by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Actually, however, there’s a thread that links all three stories, as well as a fourth that is only starting to get serious attention in the media.
The debt-ceiling vote in the House (extending the limit until mid-May) was a mixture of “kicking it down the road” and acknowledging the bluff for what it is. Too many elected GOP House members, despite their rhetoric, know that the nation’s debts have to be paid. It isn’t a matter of ideology on this issue; it’s just plain good government. Yes, spending may be too high to be sustainable in the long run, but not paying existing debts would be like driving a car off the cliff just because it needs a tune-up.
In the end, the Republicans (or at least most of them) get that fact, and when the president called their bluff, essentially daring them to take the country down, they had to cave in. And they will cave in again in May (or sooner) whether they get the spending cuts they are seeking or not. In politics, when you don’t have the cards, sooner or later you fold.
But there is more to the debt ceiling cave-in than the fact that Obama won a battle that never should have been waged in the first place. What the action by the House Republicans this week shows is that they are in trouble and that they know they are in trouble.
That’s progress. Back in 2011, when many of the same Republicans refused to cave, they were still emboldened by their electoral victories the previous fall. That’s when all the Obamacare hatred they had spewed carried them to a re-capture of the House and to a swing in the party’s favor in many state electoral contests.
It’s a classic pattern in politics: after a big electoral win, the victors often get too heady for their own good. A case can be made that Obama suffered from the same syndrome following his ’08 landslide victory, as he may well have pushed too hard to get health care reform (although, to his credit, he did get it, and it’s probably here to stay).
But the Republicans in 2013 have a very different perception of their status with the American people than they did in 2011. What was first disbelief on election night soon became shock. And now, as reality has finally begun to set in, the leaders of the party (and many of its back-benchers as well) are starting to understand that they aren’t resonating with the electorate and don’t have particularly rosy prospects if the economy continues to improve and Obama continues to press his agenda as aggressively as his inaugural speech suggested he will.
All of which brings us to Hillary Clinton and her Congressional testimony on Wednesday. That she even appeared at both the House and Senate committees and subjected herself to five full hours of questioning was itself something of a surprise. At least if you get your news from Rush and Fox, it was.
Those blowhards had told their listeners/viewers for weeks that the series of physical maladies Ms. Clinton had suffered were all a subterfuge to protect her from having to “face the music” in the Congressional hearings on Benghazi. They had many of their ditto-heads convinced that Ms. Clinton would never testify, that her maladies were phony and were just intended to get her through January and into retirement.
(I’ll just note in passing that these same “pundits” had convinced many of their followers that Mitt Romney was going to win the election handily.)
But of course, Ms. Clinton did testify, and while the Republicans on both committees tried to pin all manner of misfeasance on her, she more than held her own. The fact is, she’s just smarter, harder working, and better prepared than most of them.
But, again, there’s a story behind these headlines, too, and that story is that the Republicans are already looking to 2016, and right now, Hillary Clinton (sorry Vice-President Biden) is not only the likely opponent, but she also looks unbeatable.
So let’s connect the dots, and in the process, add a final story that hasn’t yet become front page news. The Republicans lost an election they thought they were going to win. Once the dust settled, they found themselves not particularly favored by the electorate on most issues. Their message isn’t well articulated by any of their brighter stars (such as they are), and it might not have much appeal even if it were.
The Electoral College map is looking less and less favorable to them (as the ever-growing Hispanic community aligns more and more consistently with the Democrats), and they now face a rejuvenated (and perhaps wiser to their ways) president who is apparently going all-in on his agenda in his second term.
All of these factors explain the grilling that Secretary Clinton received this week. It also explains the movement that is now picking up steam to recast the way Electoral College votes are apportioned. And that’s the other story that ties everything together.
This week, a sub-committee in Virginia’s state legislature approved a bill that would change the winner-take-all method of allocating Electoral College votes in presidential elections. Under the bill, votes would go to the candidate receiving the most votes in each Congressional district. Last year, under such a system, Romney would have received nine of the state’s 13 votes and Obama four (instead of the full 13 he actually won for beating Romney in the popular vote by 150,000).
Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are considering similar proposals with similar bills likely to follow. If those bills had been law for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney would have been elected instead of Barack Obama.
Desperation breeds ingenuity, even if it is nefarious.