Another Failure of All-or-Nothingism

03/04/2015 07:41 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

The radical Republicans just suffered yet another big defeat. President Obama today signed into law the "clean" budget for the Department of Homeland Security he had been demanding all along. For the last three months, we've all been watching the Kabuki drama play out, but the ultimate outcome was never really much in doubt. Like a badly-written detective drama where the audience spots the killer in the opening act, almost everyone knew the Tea Partiers were going to lose this battle. What is mystifying is that the battlelines were drawn by the very people who were going to lose. Perhaps mystifying is the wrong word to use. True believers are always mystifying to those who don't profess the same faith. Because this increasingly looks, from the outside, like nothing more than pure religious faith, after all. If I were to label this religious belief system, I would have to call it "All-Or-Nothingism." I would define it as: "An overpowering faith that refusing to compromise and refusing to accept partial or incremental victory will win over all your opponents in the end and give you 100 percent of what you seek."

I call it religious faith because absolutely no concrete evidence exists to prove that this tactic is ever going to work. At least not in the halls of Congress. How else to explain over 50 votes to repeal Obamacare, when President Obama is obviously never going to sign his primary legislative victory away? That takes some strong and unfounded faith, doesn't it? At its heart is the utter certainty that others will also "see the light" and join in your righteous efforts -- again, with nothing but faith to go on.

The All-Or-Nothingists in the House were on full display during the government shutdown of October, 2013. With no evidence whatsoever, they were all positive Obama and the Democrats would be forced, in the end, to capitulate to their purist dogma. That didn't happen, of course. What happened instead is that instead of getting half a loaf (or three-quarters of a loaf, or maybe even the whole damn loaf except for the crusts), they got absolutely nothing for their efforts.

The whole reason we just went through the D.H.S. drama was because the All-Or-Nothingists convinced John Boehner in December that this time it was sure to work. Boehner did put his foot down and insist that most of the government be funded by an omnibus bill through the end of the fiscal year, but he let the Tea Partiers stick to just a continuing resolution to fund D.H.S., with a deadline of late February. Thus the "cromnibus" was born. To the Tea Party faithful, holding the funds for Homeland Security hostage was all but guaranteed to force President Obama to overturn his own newly-announced immigration policy. That didn't happen, either. The only difference in the drama was that this time Boehner refused to let the department actually shut down (as he had allowed the entire federal government to shut down in 2013). But the All-Or-Nothingist tactics remained the same. As did the eventual outcome -- a total victory for Obama, and nothing for the All-Or-Nothingists.

This, obviously, isn't the smartest way to play the game of politics. Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress, and yet still seem hobbled by the House Tea Partiers. Because of this dynamic, there is little chance for compromise, partial victory or even incremental steps towards Republican goals.

Think about it -- if Republicans had set their sights lower than "everything we want, right now," they could possibly have made some legislative gains by now and successfully pushed back against at least some of Obama's agenda. On immigration, for instance, a brilliant move would have been for the House to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill which stated that the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in America could apply for legal status; but that doing so would also mean that they forfeited their chance of ever become a U.S. citizen. They could become legal residents, in other words, but never get the chance to vote. This "path to legalization" was discussed among some Republicans earlier, but nothing ever came of the notion.

It would have put the Democrats on a very tricky spot, had an actual bill ever appeared. It would have divided the Latino population with a gigantic wedge. After all, many people existing here without papers might agree that a work permit and legal residency was enough, and that not being able to vote was a small price to pay for never having to look over their shoulders in fear for the rest of their lives. Democrats would have the choice of supporting an idea which fell far short of a path to citizenship, or holding a hard line against any legalization short of that. It'd be an agonizing choice, especially if the Republicans got some political momentum behind the plan with the public at large.

If that's too close to the "amnesty" the All-Or-Nothingists love to scream about, then consider a different legislative strategy. Republicans could have made good on their promises to tackle immigration in the House in incremental steps. They could have passed a border security bill by now (they've certainly had long enough to do so) which toughened up the border and precluded any other immigration policy changes until the border was deemed secure enough to take the next step. But they haven't even been able to manage that, much less pass any other incremental immigration reform bills. Even though the entire Republican Party largely agrees on beefing up border security, they have been incapable of acting on the issue. That's not on Democrats -- that's entirely the fault of the All-Or-Nothingists.

Republicans could have attempted some horse-trading with Democrats, too. "If you allow us to add this, then you can have one item from your Column A, how's that?" This is the traditional way of moving legislation in a divided Congress, but so far Republicans don't seem very interested in engaging in such bargaining. President Obama has actually been willing to offer up tradeoffs of this type, even when it meant agreeing to things Democrats truly hate (as he did in the "Grand Bargain" -- which collapsed when the All-Or-Nothingists got wind of the deal). He's never going to sign a "repeal Obamacare" bill, but he might allow certain bits of it to be chipped away, in exchange for a few items on his "to do" list. Now that Democrats are a minority in the Senate, they might be even more open to wheeling and dealing over crucial legislation. Republicans could have advanced much more of their agenda by now if they had ever been able to make this tactic work for them. But, at least since the Grand Bargain collapse, they haven't even shown any inclination to try.

The only way this logjam is ever going to break is if John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi get together and hash things out, behind the scenes. Mitch McConnell has already shown the ability to work with Senate Democrats, because he is more aware than Boehner that holding a simple majority does not mean Republicans get everything they want out of his chamber. Pelosi would likely be open to agreeing that Boehner would give the Tea Party a few weeks to make all the noise they wanted; but then when the crunch time came, House Democrats would join with those House Republicans who didn't worship at the Church of All-Or-Nothing in order to get a few things passed that both sides wanted.

I know this will read as blasphemy to the All-Or-Nothing congregation, but there is a third option. You're never going to get "all" as long as there is a Democrat in the White House and more Democrats than one-third of both houses of Congress. It's just not going to happen, no matter how fervently you believe it to be true. Instead of winding up with a flat-out "nothing" -- over and over again -- you can indeed get "something" out of the process. Compromise is not a dirty word, and neither is incrementalism. The only thing stopping you from getting a few legislative things you desire is your faith in All-Or-Nothingism.

The problem, though, is that this requires giving up deeply-held beliefs. Beliefs so deeply-held they border on the religious. And it's always hard to argue logic with true believers of any faith. Which means we all may be doomed to watch as Republicans in Washington continue to lurch from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis in an eternal Sisyphean loop. They push the stone up the hill, and it rolls back down and crushes their hopes, once again. That is my prophecy for the end result of All-Or-Nothingism, at least for the foreseeable future.


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