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Monday, January 28, 2013

Fever breaking?

In meetings with donors and editorial boards during the 2012 campaign, Obama suggested that his reelection would "break the fever" of fanatic GOP opposition to everything he proposed. The fiscal cliff brinksmanship at the turn of the year did nothing to suggest any such "break"-through, as Obama acknowledged in a New Republic interview conducted in mid-January and published just yesterday:
Chris Hughes: You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you've made headway on that?

Not yet, obviously.

CH: How do you imagine it happening?

I never expected that it would happen overnight. I think it will be a process. And the Republican Party is undergoing a still-early effort at reexamining what their agenda is and what they care about. I think there is still shock on the part of some in the party that I won reelection. There's been a little bit of self-examination among some in the party, but that hasn't gone to the party as a whole yet.
Now, just a day after that interview appeared, the doctor may be looking up and offering some cautious optimism.  For a day at least, the stonewall seems to be cracking at three points:

  • At 12:01 a.m. today, a bipartisan "gang of eight senators" announced a framework for comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans in the group included once and future reform proponents McCain,  Graham, and Flake, and current Tea Party darling/presumed future presidential candidate Marco Rubio. Since the basic outlines of the plan -- a rigorous (some might say treacherous) path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, jacked-up border security and requirements for employers to verify immigration status, and an eased path for high-skilled immigrants -- follow the contours of the plan proposed by George W. Bush in 2007 (and rejected by his own party), it can hardly be demonized as an Obama initiative to destroy America.

  • Paul Ryan says that House Republicans will not pursue a government shutdown if no budget agreement is reached before the current continuing resolutions expire in late March. Granted, Ryan claims that the GOP is willing to let the sequestered cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act take effect. But that is a different kind of chicken, since the sequestered cuts are acknowledged as horrible policy on both sides and are unacceptable, for different reasons, to both sides. Professed willingness to let them take effect is not a hostage-taking maneuver. In concert with the debt ceiling postponement, this is a clear signal that the GOP has lost its appetite for budget brinksmanship.

  • An analysis by political scientist Danny Hayes on Wonkblog shows that Obama, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre,  has succeeded in placing gun control on the national agenda rather than let it fade from public consciousness as it has after previous mass shootings. After the initial flood of coverage receded, 
    coverage shortly moved on to a third phase. Whereas gun control had evaporated from the news within about a month of the earlier shootings, in the case of Newtown, it surged back in mid-January.

    The initial uptick — in the “three weeks after” period — took place after Vice President Biden announced on Jan. 9 that President Obama “is going to act.” The surge continued the following week, on Jan. 16, when Obama announced and signed 23 executive actions to put reforms in place. According to LexisNexis data compiled by George Washington University undergraduate Sean O’Connell, the president’s announcement generated more than 800 gun-control stories in one day, more than any single-day total since the Newtown shooting.

    Newtown also stands out for the extent to which gun control has been central to the media narrative about the shooting.
    Political scientists often assert that while presidents can't sway public opinion by publicly advocating  particular positions, they can place items on the national agenda, as Obama has done here. Having done so, he can tap overwhelming popular support for some gun control measures -- e.g., universal background checks, which according to Gallup are supported by 90% of Republicans.  I think it's fair to anticipate that meaningful if limited action on the gun control front is likely.
The degree or type of progress likely on any of these fronts is of course uncertain. The "Gang of Eight" immigration proposal includes what could be a poison pill: a proposed commission of border state officials that must certify that proposed measures to tighten border control have been "completed" before the program to offer a citizenship path to the undocumented goes into effect. Some worry that such a commission could postpone the citizenship path forever; others claim that it's just a fig leaf for "enforcement first" Republicans and will be rendered toothless.  Regarding the budget, Republicans continue to insist that they will agree to no further revenue hikes; if that's so, the best that can be hoped for is a stalemate in which the sequester is postponed, short-term continuing resolutions are ground out, and we stand pat with the enacted spending cuts in the Budget Control Act and Obama's new taxes on the top 1% -- grand bargain interruptus, but not a horrible outcome.  And re gun control, the GOP may yet find a path to stonewall against any action at all.

Nonetheless, change is in the air. Republicans recognize the need to court Hispanics and Asians. They apparently have lost their appetite for budget brinksmanship.  And they are backed into a public opinion corner on at least some aspects of gun control.

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