When congressional insiders say John Boehner could lose his speakership if he moves to end the confrontations over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it provokes an obvious question: How could he tell?
Embattled throughout his nearly three-year tenure, Boehner has never seemed more a SINO—that's Speaker In Name Only—than during this crisis. He's allowed the House Republicans' most conservative members to repeatedly escalate the confrontation despite his doubts about their strategy, if that word applies. At times lately, Boehner has hinted he might isolate the Right by building a coalition of Democrats and more pragmatic Republicans before allowing the federal government to default on its debts. But, so far, he's effectively thrown up his hands and surrendered the wheel to the Right's insatiable demand for collision.
It's another question whether anyone else could have done better at taming the unruly passion of the tea-party-allied caucus in both chambers that has goaded the GOP into this brawl. One lesson of the grueling standoff, as I noted recently, is that when Congress devolves into perpetual conflict, each party's more militant voices gain influence at the expense of its deal-makers.
That dynamic is evident in a Democratic Party that has coalesced around a hard-line, no-negotiations strategy meant to lastingly delegitimize threats of government shutdown or default as a lever for exacting policy concessions. "We have to break the cycle of this, and it has to happen now," insists one senior White House aide.
But the shift of power from the center to the fringe has been most vivid in a Republican Party that precipitated this clash. Although Boehner's hapless performance surely has ironfisted predecessors like Joe Cannon and Sam Rayburn spinning, it's not as if Senate Republican leaders, despite their own abundant doubts, have more successfully controlled the most belligerent voices in their own ranks.
The reason the most confrontational congressional Republicans have seized the party's controls is that they are most directly channeling the bottomless alienation coursing through much of the GOP's base. That doesn't mean Republican voters have broadly endorsed the party's specific tactics: In this week's United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, even GOP voters split fairly closely on the wisdom of seeking concessions on President Obama's health care law through the debt and spending showdowns (while almost every other group preponderantly opposed that idea).
But the kamikaze caucus, by seeking to block the president by any means necessary, is reflecting the back-to-the wall desperation evident among grassroots Republicans convinced that Obama and his urbanized, racially diverse supporters are transforming America into something unrecognizable. Although those voters are split over whether the current tactics will work, they are united in resisting any accommodation with Obama.
Veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has studied the two parties' coalitions since the 1980s, recently conducted several focus groups with GOP voters that probed this passion. He concluded that the roaring sense of embattlement among the almost all-white tea party and evangelical Christian voters central to the GOP base draws on intertwined ideological, electoral, and racial fears.
These core conservative voters, Greenberg wrote recently, fear "that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes." Much like Mitt Romney's musings about the 47 percent, these voters see an ominous cycle of Democrats promising benefits "to increase dependency" among mostly minority voters who empower them to win elections and then provide yet more benefits (like a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally). Obama's health care law looms to them as the tipping point toward a permanent Democratic advantage built on dependency and demographic change.
Greenberg's analysis echoes the findings of other scholars, such as Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, whose studies have concluded that the tea party's most ardent priority is reducing government transfer payments to those it considers undeserving. Earlier United Technologies/NJ Congressional Connection polling has found that the older and noncollege whites now central to the GOP coalition mostly see health care reform as a program that will benefit the poor rather than people like them (though, in fact, many working-class whites lack insurance).
House GOP leaders flailing for an exit strategy this week are again suggesting broad negotiations that will constrain entitlement programs such as Medicare. But our latest polling shows older and downscale whites overwhelmingly resist changes in Medicare or Social Security, which they consider benefits they have earned—and pointedly distinguish from transfer programs.
Those findings suggest that the real fight under way isn't primarily about the size of government but rather who benefits from it. The frenzied push from House Republicans to derail Obamacare, shelve immigration reform, and slash food stamps all point toward a steadily escalating confrontation between a Republican coalition revolving around older whites and a Democratic coalition anchored on the burgeoning population of younger nonwhites. Unless the former recognizes its self-interest in uplifting the latter—the future workforce that will fund entitlements for the elderly—even today's titanic budget battle may be remembered as only an early skirmish in a generation-long siege between the brown and the gray.
This article appears in the October 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Angry and Afraid. Get more National Journal here: