Washington Gridlock Cannot Get Any Worse

Cooperation on some matters may make more sense than obstruction.

The afternoon sun hits the U.S. Capitol on the eve of the nation's midterm elections, Nov. 3, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
The afternoon sun hits the U.S. Capitol on the eve of the nation’s midterm elections, Nov. 3, 2014, in Washington, D.C.  

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Since Barack Obama took office, the congressional wing of the Republican Party has had impressive success with a simple strategy: oppose everything the president supports, blame him for every problem and make him the central issue in each election.

In 2010, this approach returned the House of Representatives to Republican control with a gain of 63 seats. In 2014, it delivered the Senate, which the GOP will now control by a majority of at least 52­–48. One might assume that the latest Democratic rout means that polarization in Washington is about to get even worse.

If extreme partisanship has worked so well for the party that now has full control of the legislative branch, are we not bound to go from a condition of hardly anything being accomplished in Washington to one of absolutely nothing being accomplished in Washington? In fact, the political situation could begin to evolve in a more positive direction come January.

When Republicans had only partial control of Congress, it was rational, if cynical, for them to behave as if anything good that happened strengthened Obama’s hand. A weak economy, even if worsened by a debt-ceiling crisis they instigated, was ultimately the president’s problem, not theirs.

But Republican incentives will be different in the days ahead. Cooperation with Obama—at least on selective matters of mutual concern—may make more sense than unflinching obstruction.

The first argument for conciliation is that Republicans will soon bear an equal share of responsibility for what happens in Washington. They will have the power to pass bills on their own. Passing only legislation that Obama is certain to veto, like overturning the Affordable Care Act, will not win them much credit with voters.

Conversely, vetoing any legislation whatsoever that Republicans are able to pass will consign Obama to premature irrelevance. This is a version of the logic that took hold after Republicans captured both houses of Congress in the 1994 election. Despite the bitter conflict that resulted in multiple government shutdowns, Bill Clinton and the Republicans managed to find common ground around a major welfare reform bill, a balanced budget, and numerous smaller issues.

The next two years no longer are merely on Obama’s watch; nor, with the economy on the upswing, will Republicans want them to be.

A second reason that cooperation may increase in 2015 is the changing dynamic within the GOP. Until this year, the biggest hazard to Republican incumbents came from more extreme Tea Party conservatives. But in this year’s primaries the Tea Party’s power began to wane, as money from wealthy donors flowed to old stalwarts such as Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas who were better positioned to keep their strongholds out of Democratic hands. This will be even more true in 2016, since turnout is far larger, and the electorate much more Democratic, in presidential election cycles.

If you are a Republican incumbent who feels that the greatest threat to your job comes from your right, then you take a big risk when you side with Obama about anything.

If, on the other hand, your principal worry is losing to a Democrat, you have an increased incentive to strike deals with the opposition on issues where Democratic positions are more popular than Republican ones.

One final reason to hope for greater bipartisanship is that hyperpartisanship may finally have reached a kind of rational dead end. While elections are inherently a zero-sum game between the two parties, politics as a whole has the potential for other outcomes. Between elections, Democrats and Republicans have evolved a lose-lose game in which the inability to find any common ground reduces respect for everyone in office.

A culture of strife and paralysis that breeds contempt for Washington as a whole makes all politicians less powerful and more miserable on a daily basis.

Ultimately, frustration with Washington makes all incumbents more vulnerable to challenge from multiple directions. If voters continue to throw the bums out in election after election, the bum will eventually be you. These shifting incentives do not mean that one should expect cooperation across the board, or compromise on the most contentious issues such as immigration or federal spending.

But Republicans may begin to find common ground with the president on issues where they do fundamentally agree, such as Trade Promotion Authority, or fixing the broken No Child Left Behind education law.

In the end, the argument for more cooperation is a simple one. Washington gridlock cannot get much worse. So at some point, it will begin to get better.

A version of this article also appeared in the Financial Times.