By Jules Witcover
February 1, 2013
Still reeling from the Republican defeat in the 2012 presidential election, House Speaker John Boehner warned in a Ripon Society speech the other day that the re-elected Obama administration is now out to kill off their party.
The embattled speaker declared that the administration would focus "everything in the next 22 months," until the next midterm congressional elections, on attempting "to annihilate the Republican Party ... to shove us into the dustbin of history."
President Barack Obama undoubtedly wishes that American voters will somehow drive the GOP from its troublesome control of the House of Representatives, giving him Democratic majorities there and in the Senate. Boehner and Co. obviously were the chief causes of his legislative woes in his first term.
Yet the Republican Party, as presently constituted and certainly as it was ineptly represented by a fumbling, fawning Mitt Romney in the last election, is now widely perceived as a handy whipping boy for the Democrats. Why in the world would they want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? The GOP has been very cooperative in antagonizing significant elements of the electorate.
Republicans' unyielding obstructionism in the first term, blatantly advertised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's vow to make Mr. Obama a one-term president, was only part of the Republican self-immolation. Mr. Romney's own hapless dismissal of "the 47 percent of Americans" as beyond his reach because they were on the federal dole was a huge political handout in itself, as Mr. Obama and the Democrats championed themselves as the protectors of the put-upon middle class.
More specifically, the Republican opposition to immigration reform, most prominently embraced by the party's tea party conservatives, proved to be a massive mobilizer of Hispanic votes for Mr. Obama, to the tune of 73 percent of that ethnic vote on Election Day.
Republicans have since jettisoned their intransigence on immigration reform, and Sen. John McCain identified the reason in one word: "elections." The more clear-headed of his Republican colleagues joining a stampede to respond to the Hispanic-American demand for serious immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for their undocumented brethren.
A post-election push in the Senate for immigration reform, led by a bipartisan group of eight senators, would couple tightened border controls with a conditional amnesty. That is the most hopeful development on the issue yet. Mr. Obama, himself moving quickly on an immigration plan of his own, has wisely indicated he will give the Senate effort time to see what it can achieve.
It remains to be seen whether this newfound spirit of cooperation among some Senate Republicans -- which seems to recognize not only the results of the November election but also the damage the party has done to its brand and image -- will be duplicated with respect to other issues. On the other post-election matter that has generated new energy -- the campaign for stronger legislative action against gun violence -- the Republican response has been much less intensive and certain.
Despite the visible efforts of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to rally public support for a resurrected ban on assault weapons, the strength of the opposition is reflected in the apparent willingness of some gun-control advocates to settle for tighter background checks on buyers of guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The pro-control forces played a powerful card of persuasion Wednesday with the arresting testimony of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who nearly died in a gun attack, and of her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly. Later counter-testimony by the ever-defiant NRA leader Wayne LaPierre continued to stoke partisan fires, supported by freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Nevertheless, on any functioning empathy meter, Mr. LaPierre was no match for the dramatic Giffords-Kelly presentation.
Moving Republican votes in Congress on immigration reform and on gun control are clearly different matters. The muscle for the first issue is a powerful ethnic voting bloc. Building public persuasion for the second, against assault weapons and their accoutrements, can rely on no similar base against the rich and entrenched gun lobby.
On both issues, though, GOP recalcitrance may play into Democratic hands with an electorate fed up with Washington do-nothingness. Right now, the Dems have little reason to want to "annihilate" their wounded opposition party.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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