Republicans seem dazed. How can President Obama be climbing in the polls while the approval rating for the Republican-controlled Congress remains stuck at 16 percent? And more stupefying, why is the president grabbing the reins of the national agenda when the GOP now controls both houses of Congress? These are confusing days for the majority on Capitol Hill.
The narrative goes something like this: We won the election, Republicans say, so Obama should now follow our lead. Of course, the problem with this line of thinking is that the president won two decisive victories in 2008 and 2012, and Republicans unleashed a wave of nothing -- a blockade to stop any and all of Obama's election priorities.
Not coincidentally, the 113th Congress that mercifully ended in December is rated as one of the least productive in the history of the republic. And Americans know it. The continued dismal approval ratings for Congress and congressional Republicans have not been favorably impacted by the supposed mandate that voters gave the GOP in the midterms. If anything, the polls bear witness to the citizenry's deepening disgust with the legislative branch.
And let's give the people credit. With the first official act of the House Republicans being the messy, near fatal reelection of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), it is very hard to take them seriously. Historically, a Speaker who navigates his party through an election and emerges with a huge majority is rewarded by his rank and file. The reelection of a Speaker is usually less an exercise in vote-counting and more a kind of Roman triumph full of praise for the conquering hero and his or her leadership prowess.
But not this time. Listening to some of the Republican rebels who wanted to dethrone Boehner, you'd think that the speaker was some unfortunate combination of a liar and traitor. For example, this is how Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) described the Speaker after announcing his own candidacy to replace Boehner: "You deceived us when you went to Obama and [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] to get your votes for the [C]romnibus. You said you'd fight amnesty tooth and nail. You didn't; you funded it."
As a follow-up, the House united around a punitive, purely symbolic vote to mass deport undocumented immigrants, divide families and cause massive economic collateral damage to the American economy. This vote was particularly interesting for what it showed about the House Republicans' stated intent to transition from an opposition party throwing rocks at the parade to a serious governing party.
At no time will this anti-immigrant bill make it into law. There are not enough Republican votes in the Senate to overcome the Democrats' certain filibuster, nor are there enough Republicans in the House to overcome the guaranteed Obama veto if this bill had somehow emerged from the Senate and landed on the president's desk.
While I can't imagine that this was the purpose of this bill, it was very successful in further alienating fast-growing minority voter groups, such as Hispanics and Asian-Americans, as well as their supporters across America.
So far, any demonstration of Republicans' ability to govern -- vital if there is to be any chance of their winning the 2016 race for the White House -- seems like a lofty ambition unlikely to be realized.
Tellingly, the immediate Republican reaction to Obama's tax cut for the middle class proposal, to be paid for with higher taxes for the very wealthy and fees on $50 billion plus banks, was met with GOP revulsion.
Likely 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reframed the middle-class tax cut proposal by saying that "Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful." Of course, when tax cuts for the wealthy were on President George W. Bush's agenda, the supposed benefits of trickle-down economics would rain prosperity on the land. Unfortunately for America, Bush's economics were empirically a disaster. So using Rubio's "logic," admittedly devoid of cogency, apparently fortifying the middle-class's spending power with tax cuts can't possibly offer any benefits.
It's difficult to imagine how Republicans can be competitive in 2016 with a "defend the wealthy and push down the middle class" message. As one prominent conservative thinker recently wrote, "Republicans are likely to lose the 2016 presidential election" if the GOP is once again positioned as the water carrier for its wealthy donors and doesn't embrace a pro-middle class set of policies that addresses the serious drop in middle-class spending power that has occurred since President Reagan first experimented with trickle-down policies in the 1980s.
Perhaps at the next Republican confab, some pragmatists will emerge to guide their colleagues. Maybe these people will share the polling data that confirms that President Obama's slew of new policy prescriptions are actually popular in the country -- while the Republicans' continued advocacy for the 1 percent of the 1 percent preferential tax rates enjoys very narrow support.
Maybe, then, instead of reacting to every new Obama announcement with outrage, Republicans will be finally ready with their own agenda. And to be clear, the 50-whatever vote to overturn ObamaCare does not count as a middle-class agenda. This reality should not be too confusing for the presently dazed and dizzy Republicans on Capitol Hill.