Far from yielding an ambiguous electoral outcome, the Iowa caucuses solidly confirmed the Balkanization of the Republican Party, a fact that will lead to potential electoral failure in 2012 unless neutralized soon. These internal divisions hurt the party’s leadership in Congress in 2011; they have already improved Democratic chances to retain the Senate, gain substantial seats in the House, and keep the White House in 2012.
Super-imposed on this chaos is a 2012 Congressional legislative schedule that virtually no one on Capitol Hill believes has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever passing.
Let’s take a look at the GOP. Mitt Romney gets a quarter of the vote, what we can call the “competency vote.” Ron Paul gets a quarter of the vote, what has been called the “Libertarian” vote, mostly male, mostly an exaggerated macho response to external order, such as what government provides. Rick Santorum, coupled with the Michelle Bachmann cohort, gets about a quarter, centered on traditional “values” like abortion and prayer in school. The remaining quarter of the self-identified Republican base (those who vote in primaries) represent a Newt Gingrich kind of amalgam of the fiscal conservatives, neo-cons, political scientists, and a few “establishment” Republicans.
The overlaps are obvious. Romney will get many of the fiscal conservative/deficit hawks eventually. Paul will continue to get the theological “no government is best” crowd, but may steal a few of Santorum’s vote. Gingrich’s folks could split easily toward Romney if and when Gingrich throws in the towel, but some may go to Santorum on social issues and to Paul in the primaries. The divisions between Tea Party Republicans and social conservatives have been over-stated by the media as revealed in Iowa. As someone with a particularly sadistic sense of humor said, “Oh, great, we make get a real convention for the Republicans this time.”
Meanwhile, incumbents in Congress have work to do, work that will raise almost every contentious issue that matters to voters.
Here’s a rough sketch of the upcoming Congressional schedule that the Congress confronts:
*the Congressional Budget Office reveals its current law and current policy baselines for FY2013-17 later this month;
*President Obama makes his State of the Union Address the January 24;
*President Obama sends his recommended increased of $1.2 trillion in the federal debt limit Congress, and Congress must approve or disapprove by a 2/3rds margin;
*President Obama submits his budget recommendations for FY2013-17 the first week of February,incorporating the defense recommendations released today by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta;
*House and Senate must confront another round of warfare over the payroll tax holiday, Unemployment Insurance, and the Medicare doc’s fix in February.
*CBO re-estimates the President’s budget submission;
*Literally hundreds of hearings on all aspects of the federal budget proceed in Congress;
*Congress should produce a Congressional Budget Resolution for FY13 in April, but has failed to do so the past two years;
*Individual appropriations bills for FY13 stall (c.f. the past several years);
*Congress spends until the August recess in wrangling, producing little of any consequence;
*After the August recess, Congress faces the same agenda it faced in 2010 and 2011, with two added wrinkles: expiration of the Bush tax cuts and a sequester (across-the-board) of $1.2 trillion in selected, discretionary appropriated accounts;
*By this time, all focus will be on a closely fought Presidential race, and the hand-to-hand combat for Senate and House seats.
Review that list. Think about the likely behavior of the factions within Congress, and the little “Balkan” nations with the Republican Party as this agenda unfolds. Deficits, realistically, will once again reach the $1 trillion mark. Economic growth is likely to be slow. The size of layoffs in the defense industry throughout the country begin to dawn on voters. The debt ceiling question inflames Congressional passions.
Remember this schedule when analysts and pundits tell you the following three things: Congress will pass major infrastructure legislation; Congress will do something serious about deficits; Congress will reach compromise before the elections on defense and the Bush tax cuts.
Not. Going. To. Happen.
And just a final, politically realistic note: if Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, an interesting “back to where we started” road begins. Romney has endorsed the Medicare reform proposals of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden. President Obama announced his opposition to those proposals the very day they were unveiled. That vote that House and Senate Republicans took way back in 2011 on the Ryan Budget Plan, which incorporated fundamental Medicare reform, will come back to haunt Republicans as Democratic strategists roll out the 30-second commercials and the blogosphere machinery.
One would think that the scenario outlined above would concentrate the minds of the House Republican caucus on unity and survival. It probably won’t.
John Boehner still has the hardest job in town.