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ROBINSON: Obstruction as the new normal

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON — The bad news is that approval ratings for both the president and Congress are sinking, with voters increasingly frustrated at the bitter, partisan impasse in Washington. The worse news is that in terms of admiration for our national leaders, these may come to be seen as the good old days.

I’m an optimist by nature, a glass-half-full kind of guy. But try as I might, I can’t convince myself that Republicans in Congress are likely to respond any better to President Obama’s latest proposals on the economy than to the previous umpteen. I’m also pretty gloomy at the moment about the prospects for meaningful immigration reform — unless House Speaker John Boehner decides that passing a bill is more important than keeping his job.

“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” Boehner said last weekend. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.” So much for faint hope.

My fear is that stasis has become a structural feature of our politics. Nothing lasts forever, but this depressing state of affairs could be with us for quite a while — and could get worse.

The public is not amused. Three out of four Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, while a Wall Street Journal survey measured disapproval of Congress at a stunning 83 percent. Obama’s approval rating has slid to 49 percent, the Post-ABC poll found — better than the president’s political opponents are faring but hardly anything to cheer about.

Here’s the basic problem: The Democratic Party seems likely to grow ever stronger nationally while the GOP remains firmly entrenched locally. This means the stubborn, maddening, unproductive standoff between a Democratic president and a Republican majority in the House may be the new normal.

Demographic trends clearly favor the Democrats in presidential elections. Hispanics and Asian-Americans, the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing minorities respectively, both voted for Obama over Mitt Romney by more than 70 percent. This is not just a function of the GOP’s hostility to immigration reform, although that certainly doesn’t help. Republicans are also out of step with these voters on other issues such as health care. And all too often they transmit a breathtaking level of hostility.

A case in point is the recent allegation by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that for every young undocumented immigrant who becomes a valedictorian, “there’s another 100 out there that — they weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Criticized by his colleagues — ixnay on the igotrybay — King insisted his comments were “factually correct.” And the GOP’s outreach to Latino voters returned to square one.

None of this eliminates the possibility that Democrats will nominate flawed presidential candidates or that Republicans will nominate attractive ones. But all things being equal, the Democratic Party likely will go into presidential elections with a structural advantage. Eventually the GOP will be at pains to defend even Texas, the party’s only reliable mega state.

Yet the Republican majority in the House, ensconced by clever redistricting, will be hard to dislodge. Perhaps Democratic registration and get-out-the-vote efforts can reshape the midterm electorate enough next year to recapture the majority. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it.

It may be, then, that we’re in for a much longer period of divided government in which the principal way that Republicans can affect federal policy is through obstruction. The whole “party of no” thing is more than a meme; it’s a logical — if somewhat nihilistic — plan of action. Or inaction.

Republicans know they cannot repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example, but they can hamper its implementation. They cannot impose their vision of immigration reform — all fence and no citizenship, basically — but they can ensure that no reforms are approved. They cannot choose their own nominees for federal judgeships, but they can block Obama’s.

Commentators who criticize the president for not hosting enough cocktail parties or golf outings for Republicans are ignoring political reality. He has tried being nice, he has tried being tough, he has tried offering to compromise, he has tried driving a hard bargain. Nothing works if Republicans are committed to blocking every single thing he seeks to do.

No wonder Obama chose to unveil his economic program while making what looks like a campaign swing. It will be the voters who eventually get us out of this hole. Unfortunately, that may take some time.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.