The endgame over the fiscal cliff, like the first stirrings of debate about gun control and immigration, all capture a subtle but potentially consequential shift in the Washington dynamic.
On each front, Democrats are growing more unified while Republicans and conservatives are displaying increasing cracks. That inverts the alignment through most of President Obama’s first term--and indeed most of the past quarter-century.
In the decades immediately before and after World War II, both parties were divided in Congress between the moderate and the more ideological wings. But since the 1980s, the two sides have diverged. Conservatives have established unquestioned dominance in the GOP. Meanwhile, Democrats, though moving to the left overall, have maintained much greater divisions.
The debates over taxes, guns and immigration all reflect this evolution. Not long ago, each issue divided both parties.
While virtually all congressional Republicans supported Ronald Reagan’s 1981 supply-side tax cuts, for instance, a significant phalanx of GOP centrists split from conservatives to back subsequent deficit-cutting tax increases under Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Meanwhile, the Republican tax-cutters frequently found support from Democratic conservatives, such as the mostly Southern “boll weevils” who crossed party lines to back Reagan’s 1981 plan.
On guns, Bill Clinton suffered defections from 77 mostly Southern and Western House Democrats during the battle over the assault-weapon ban in 1994. But he passed the bill nonetheless by attracting 38 House Republicans, most from suburban districts in blue-leaning states.
On the big immigration debates, such as the 1986 legislation Reagan signed that provided citizenship to those here illegally, or George W. Bush’s similar attempt in 2006, left-of-center Democrats joined mostly with Republican moderates and GOP officials from areas with big Hispanic populations against the most conservative voices in both parties.
But while Democrats have remained divided on all three issues, Republicans more recently have moved right almost monolithically. On taxes, every congressional Republican voted against the Clinton 1993 budget plan and Obama’s health reform proposal that raised taxes, and virtually all Republicans backed the younger Bush’s tax cuts. Almost every House Republican from even the leafiest suburban districts voted with the National Rifle Association in 2011 to override state concealed-carry laws. And support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants grew so toxic inside the GOP that John McCain, during his 2008 presidential campaign, felt compelled to renounce his own 2006 legislation providing one. On all of these issues, Democrats remained split through the Bush years and Obama’s first term. POST