This post first appeared in The Nation.
Very early Tuesday morning, just after the White House Office of Management and Budget told agencies to begin “the orderly shutdown” of the federal government, a frustrated Harry Reid went to the floor of the United States Senate.
The Senate — with its Democratic majority and its reasonable number of reasonable Republicans — stood ready to take action to prevent the shutdown from moving forward, he said.
But, the Nevada Democrat admitted, there was no indication that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was prepared to join in a serious discussion.
Of the House Republicans, Reid said: “It is embarrassing that these people (who) are elected to represent the country are representing the tea party.”
Reid was griping.
But, to the extent that he is using the term “tea party” in the broadest sense — to refer to the money-and-media election complex that has developed to “police” Republican primaries — he was also stating the essential fact of the political moment.
There are a good number of reasonable Republicans in the House.
But they are not prepared to be reasonable. Though their party has little chance of prevailing in the quixotic bid to “defund Obamacare” via the government shutdown that began at midnight, it was too much to ask that they speak that “emperor-has-no-clothes” truth at the critical moment.
It is not because the American people have embraced the Ted Cruz fantasy. While it is true that many retain doubts about the Affordable Care Act, the broader issue of whether to halt its implementation was litigated last year.
The point of the 2012 election was clear enough. In case anyone missed it, the “numbers guy” in the House Republican Caucus, Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., joined the Republican ticket to make everything crystal clear.
“We made this campaign about big ideas and big issues,” said the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.
He was right.
Republicans offered their alternative to the American people.
And they lost.
Ryan and Romney lost the popular vote by 5 million votes.
Ryan and Romney lost the Electoral College by an overwhelming 332-206 margin.
Ryan and Romney lost every swing state except North Carolina.
Obama got the mandate with a bigger percentage of the popular vote, in fact, than Presidents Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Bush in 2000 and 2004.
And the mandate went beyond the presidential race.
Democrats were expected to lose seats in the U.S. Senate. Instead, they added two seats and won the popular vote for contested seats nationally by more than 10 million votes — ending up on the winning side of a 54-42 split.
Democrats also won the popular vote for U.S. House seats by 1.7 million votes. In other words, gerrymandering and electoral processes that do not always produce a clear reflection of popular sentiment kept Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and John Boehner in positions of leadership.
These are the undeniable facts of the 2012 election.
But there is an equally undeniable fact.
The same gerrymandering that helped Republicans to secure control of the House even when they lost the popular vote now defines the chamber. After the Republican wave of 2010, the new governors and legislators of states across the country drew Republican-friendly lines for House districts.
But they did not draw them a little Republican-friendly. They drew them a lot that way.
Contrasts between the Republican Congress of 1995 to 1996, which forced the last government shutdown, and the Republican Congress of today, are stark.
But that’s where the comparisons stop.
National Journal reminds us that:
* Back in 1995, 79 House Republicans represented districts that voted for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Today, a mere 17 House Republicans represent districts that voted for Barack Obama in 2012.
* Back in 1995, 141 House Republicans represented districts where the Republican presidential vote was at or below the 55 percent level. In effect, these were potential swing districts. Today, just 71 House Republicans represent even potentially swing districts where Mitt Romney attracted less than 55 percent of the 2012 vote.
* According to The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, the average GOP House member represented a district with a 6.6-point Republican electoral advantage. Today, the figure is 11.1 percent.
A misread of those numbers imagines that everyone who represents an overwhelmingly Republican district is a hyper-partisan tea party activist who would never entertain the notion of compromise. In fact, many of the districts are represented by senior Republicans who were around for the 1995–96 showdown and embraced the negotiations that settled it — members like Wisconsin’s Tom Petri and Michigan’s Fred Upton.
They would, undoubtedly, do so again. Indeed, there are dozens of Republicans who would be prepared to end the madness of the moment.
But they cannot do so, for fear of being “primaried.”
In overwhelmingly Republican districts, the threat of a general election defeat — at the hands of swing voters infuriated with extremist stances and general dysfunction — is slim. But the threat of a primary challenge and defeat, is real. With national networks of right-wing donors at the ready to fund runs against so-called “Republican-in-Name-Only” incumbents, the threat is amplified.
Upton, once considered a relative moderate, has faced repeated Republican primary challenges in his southwestern Michigan district. In 2010, the congressman got a wake-up call when his right-wing foe won 43 percent of the Republican primary vote. Upton got the message. He has moved steadily to the right, and that has provided him with some ideological insulation. But were he to emerge now as a supporter of compromise and cooperation, he would be in serious political trouble.
The same goes for Petri in Wisconsin and dozens of other Republican members. As Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, says, GOP colleagues who know better must embrace the shutdown politics “make it out of a Republican primary.”
The combination of gerrymandering, winner-take-all elections and big-money national politics has done more than establish a political landscape where Republicans have significant advantages in races for control of the House. It has established a landscape where reasonable Republicans are afraid to be reasonable.
The prospect of being “primaried” matters more than the threat of punishment at the polls in November.
So Republicans who might once have sought common ground now refuse to do so.
They are protecting their political prospects. And it will probably work for them.
They won’t be “primaried.”
Rather, America is being “primaried.”
That’s the root of the crisis. And it provides a reminder that, if Americans want Washington to function, they had best establish election systems that allow the great mass of Americans to have their say — not the tiny percentage of voters who decide primaries in overwhelmingly Republican districts.
Groups like Common Cause and FairVote have for years been shouting out the pathologies creating by gerrymandering and a winner-take-all politics where most Americans are shoved to the sidelines. They’ve always been right. But they have often been dismissed as “good-government types” who are too much concerned with process and too little concerned with immediate political and governing crises.
Now, the pathologies they warned about are the crisis.