Molly Ball covers U.S. politics for The Atlantic and appears regularly as a guest analyst on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, PBS, CNN, Fox and MSNBC. In this interview, she traces the roots of today's political dysfunction in Washington, and explains how it handicapped the Obama agenda, led to war inside the GOP and polarized the American electorate.
"This is the incredible irony, right, of Obama's two terms in office," says Ball. "A man elected on a platform of healing the American divide, bringing together the red states and the blue states, and the Republicans and the Democrats, ends up leaving office with this country looking more polarized, more divided, more riven by ideological and other really tribal fissures that I can ever remember."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on May 5, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Well, it was very dramatic in terms of the Obama administration's policy plans. A lot of the things that they'd been planning on doing basically went out the window once the Republicans took the House, particularly in the dramatic fashion that they did. This was not a small setback or a marginal repudiation of the Obama agenda. This was an overwhelming wave of people across the country basically acting in backlash to the big steps that the administration had tried to take in the first couple of years.
Now, the administration I think would tell you this is Republicans' fault, that Republican intransigence and the obstructionism of Mitch McConnell forced their hand. They would have loved to do, for example, health care on a bipartisan basis. That wasn't an option when every single Republican senator refused to be a part of what they were doing, no matter how many policy concessions they wanted to make.
The Republicans would tell you that the Obama administration, the president and his aides had a certain arrogance. They didn't understand how Congress worked; they didn't want to work with Congress. Even many Democrats will tell you today that that's the case.
In any case, this is sort of the root of the stalemate that I think would define the rest of the Obama administration. Almost all the big policy accomplishments of the Obama administration came in those first two years with almost exclusively Democratic votes, and after that, the backlash came. The Republicans took the House, and it was gridlock from there on out.
Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Eric Cantor symbolized this new generation of Republicans that wanted to put a sort of slick new face on the party. They modeled themselves a little bit after the Gingrich Revolution, the idea that Republicans could have a positive, forward-looking agenda that would convince voters that they were the party of ideas, that there was substance to their plans. They knew that there was a risk for the party in seeming to stand only for no and seeming to stand only for opposition to Obama and whatever he wanted do. ...
So you have three sort of fresh faces, these clean-cut, charismatic to whatever degree, well-spoken politicians, who could be the public face of the new Republican Party, a party that was about the future, not the past.
... Eric Cantor was always a very ambitious politician, to the point that that was something a lot of people didn't like about him. His ambition rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. And he was seen as competing with Speaker [John] Boehner in a lot of ways. Boehner's people saw Cantor's people as a threat. They worried that Cantor was conspiring with a lot of the opposition to Boehner to stymie Boehner's agenda, to prevent him from getting the votes that he needed. There was a lot of palace intrigue in the House Republican Caucus from the minute they took the majority, and Eric Cantor was behind no small part of it.
Right. Well, remember how these new 87 Republicans got elected in the first place. They were riding the Tea Party wave. They were riding this wave of antagonism to the Obama agenda, and a lot of them won Republican primaries. So this was a wave that didn't just say yes to Republicans, no to Democrats. This was a wave that said the Republican leaders themselves are a target of our anger. ... Remember, 2010 was the year that a lot of incumbent Republicans, including some very high-profile members of the United States Senate who'd been there for a long time, lost in Republican primaries, because this was Republican primary voters saying: "We want something more pure; we want something more aggressive. We want not just Republicans, but a certain type of Republican representing us."
So you have these new Republicans in the House, and a lot of them are opposed to Republican leadership. They are opposed to any type of compromise. They've gotten elected on this Tea Party platform of not just stopping the Obama agenda, although that was a big part of it, but going radically in the other direction--not just stopping government from getting any bigger, but making it a whole lot smaller; not just preventing taxes from being increased at any cost, but slashing taxes and getting rid of whole departments of government.
So that is a position that's pretty much irreconcilable with anything that Obama wanted to do. You can't get a Grand Bargain when one side wants more government, one side wants less. The only thing in the middle of those two is the status quo, and that [results] in gridlock.
That's right. The conservative movement has been with us for decades. You can trace it back to Barry Goldwater and even before that. This was a movement that saw itself as a movement of ideas that stood outside the Republican Party. The Republican Party was a vessel for its candidates, a vessel for its ideas, but in a lot of ways conservatives saw themselves at odds with the Republican Party that would rather compromise, that would rather make deals.
When Newt Gingrich rose in 1994, he accused the Republicans who had been the House minority for decades of basically just being there to take the deal, to make the deal with Democrats and let the government continue to grow, let the Democrats advance their liberal agenda with maybe a slight break on it. And Gingrich was saying, no, we want to go the other way.
So the conservative movement had been around before, but it got new energy with the rise of the Tea Party. It got new energy with the opposition to President Obama and the backlash to Obama's actions and policies.
So in retrospect, this actually looks much more significant, that you had a movement within the Republican Party that was opposed to the Republican Party, that saw the institutions of the GOP itself as their targets. You had a lot of Republican voters who were not loyal to the idea of the Republican Party at all, and in a lot of ways saw themselves as wanting to take it over and change it.
Republicans were stunned by the outcome of the 2012 election. They believed it was all but inevitable that they would [win] the presidency. And you know, you can see this as a result in a lot of ways of the polarization and partisan segregation that has happened in America today. ... So many people today live in whole neighborhoods, whole communities where nobody disagrees with them, that if you were a Mitt Romney voter ... you thought everybody hated President Obama. You couldn't imagine that anybody would vote for that guy, he was so terrible. And you have this billion-dollar campaign apparatus devoted to hammering the other guy and convincing you that the apocalypse is coming if he wins. ...
A sort of all-star committee of the Republican establishment set out to figure out what went wrong with Mitt Romney's candidacy, in part because they were so befuddled. They didn't understand how a candidate that they viewed as so competent and likable could have lost. Now, a lot of Republicans did blame Romney himself, but the autopsy was a way of saying, what could we as a party have done better? Partly in terms of tactics, how could we have built a better ground game? There were so many stories about how the Obama campaign had this magnificent data operation and all these incredible geniuses who knew computer science, and that was the secret sauce.
Part of it was about tactics and strategy and political operations, but part of it was about message, because you can't separate the two in politics, so trying to really be unsparing and to take a look at what was it that voters were hearing from Mitt Romney and why didn't they like it? Why did they prefer Obama's message?
There was only one policy recommendation in the autopsy report, and it was that if Republicans wanted to win, if they wanted to get more votes, the votes that were most accessible to them that they could most easily win with sort of a simple fix were Hispanic voters, and to do that, they needed to pass immigration reform. ...
I don't think any fever broke in 2012. It was the hope of the Obama administration that by losing, Republicans would learn a lesson; that they would see that they had to compromise, they had to work with the president. ...They would see that they needed to get onboard with some of Obama's ideas. Obama believed that he won a resounding mandate in the 2012 election and that this was a referendum on what direction to go on a whole array of policy issues, from whether we should tax the rich more, to whether we should legalize undocumented immigrants. He felt that he had won all of these policy arguments, and therefore Republicans would have no choice but to go along and work with him to get these things done.
Well, Republicans didn't feel that way. The fever did not break, in part because even if John Boehner wanted to move the ball on a lot of these items, which I think he did, he was in no position to promise anything; his caucus was so divided. We saw multiple times--and this used to be considered a really humiliating thing for a speaker of the House to put something on the floor and then not be able to get the votes for it. That happened to John Boehner four or five times. He was not in control of his caucus. He didn't even know where his caucus stood well enough to get a whip count of how many votes he had for something he was ready to put on the floor.
So part of the problem of the White House trying to work with John Boehner was that even if Boehner agreed with something, he couldn't necessarily get the votes for it.
I think people don't remember how much hope there seemed for gun control legislation in the wake of Sandy Hook. It's easy to look back on it and say, oh, this could never happen; people are too divided on this issue; Republicans are too beholden to the NRA or committed to the Second Amendment, whatever. But the needle really moved after Sandy Hook. You have several senators who had previously been very pro-NRA come out and say they were ready to work something out, whether it was the Republican Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania or conservative Democrat Joe Manchin in West Virginia.
The two of them teamed up to come up with this legislation that was intended to be a compromise. This was not the brass ring for gun control advocates; it was very far from it. It was a very limited bill addressing only the most popular part of the gun control agenda, background checks, and to a lot of advocates it didn't do much at all. But the idea was to do something and to find something that people could agree on.
So the fact that even this small incremental bill couldn't get anywhere, and eventually opposition to it hardened and hardened mostly along partisan lines, I think tells you a lot about the state of our Congress.
I think the White House learned that for a lot of these big issues, particularly culturally charged issues, ... that the partisanship and the ideological lines are so deeply drawn and the actors--particularly the activists, particularly on the pro-Second Amendment side-- are so vigilant and so committed that it's very hard to achieve anything that would involve crossing some of these lines.
Think about who's in favor of immigration reform, specifically on the right: Karl Rove; the chamber of commerce; a whole lot of Republicans, the sort of Republican establishment. Now a lot of these are business Republicans. The farm lobby, for example, strongly wants immigration reform because of the labor problems that exist in the agriculture industry. So you have a whole lot of establishment Republicans in favor of immigration reform and thinking that this is something they can work with the administration to do.
It's not even clear that the base of the Republican Party is that opposed to it. You certainly have a very vocal minority of Republicans. It tends to be 20 to 30 percent in polls of Republican primary voters who do believe you have to deport everybody who's here illegally and stop letting people in. But even among Republican primary voters, that's a minority.
So the Republican establishment thought, look, nobody should be afraid of losing a primary over this. You might get some hate mail or some calls to your office, but this is something that you're safe to vote for. They underestimated, I think, the targeted passion of that vocal minority of the base that are really single-issue voters on this immigration issue, and the ability of the grassroots on the right.
The interesting thing about the immigration debate, to me, was that on the pro-immigration reform side, you have this alphabet soup of lobbying organizations, right? There's about 20 groups in my email inbox advocating for immigration reform at any given time. On the other side, there's not much in terms of organization. It's really a grassroots movement of people across the country who feel very strongly about this issue, and if anything happens on it, they will call their congressman and they will make their voices heard. ...
The 2012 election was a huge moment of hope for immigration reform. People who had been working on this issue for 30 years were convinced it was finally going to happen because the stars were all aligned. ...The Democratic Party was unified around immigration reform, and the Republican Party seemed less opposed to immigration reform than at any point in the past.
You had a lot of Republicans feeling like this was their only chance to prevent the party from basically going out of business. You had a national election that had just been lost, arguably because of the party's tone on immigration and its attitude toward Hispanic voters. And you had the Republican National Committee itself saying, here's an issue where we ought to change our tune and find a compromise if we want to continue being a viable national party.
You had a president who vowed to enact immigration reform in his first, I believe, year in office and completely broke that promise, and therefore you had a community of immigration activists who felt betrayed, so they did put increasing pressure on the president. The strategy changed from wanting to work with the White House and encourage the White House to really aggressively taking action to pressure the White House and confronting the president at events, this kind of thing.
So yeah, Obama faced intense pressure to act, but you also had a bipartisan group of senators. ... This is a sort of an all-star group of big-name senators. These are people with juice, right? These aren't back-benchers, and the eight of them coming together on immigration reform seemed to have all the ingredients? You've got someone like Chuck Schumer for the Democrats, who's a well-known fixer and doer. You've got on the Republican side, on the one hand, John McCain. Everybody knows John McCain. He's been passionate about this issue for a long time, and he's a former presidential nominee of the party; he's got some clout. On the other hand, Marco Rubio, the rising hope of the party, the man with the golden tongue who came to Washington on the Tea Party wave and had a lot of credibility with the right. People forget now, but when Marco Rubio came to Washington, he was the darling of the conservative movement. He won probably every straw poll that was held at every little conservative conference, all the way through 2010. So he had a lot of credibility with talk radio and grassroots Republicans. Him coming to the table was huge for this issue.
Sure. Getting any big bill passed is a high-wire act, and there were fits and starts for this immigration bill. The Gang of Eight came together, and they worked on something that they thought could please everyone. Of course, there are two basic interests to be balanced. On the one hand, to get Republican votes, you had to have a bill that was going to be convincing about securing the border. So from the point of view of a lot of reform advocates, the bill was really overkill. It added thousands of border patrol guards that arguably weren't needed. It put in place all kinds of safeguards to try to make this not just a citizenship bill but a border bill as well.
So the one interest is securing the border, stopping the flow of illegal immigration, balanced with--and this is the compromise--the naturalization of the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already living in this country.
The imperative for a bill like this is to convince people that this does not constitute "amnesty" by putting in place a series of requirements that people are going to have to meet to become citizens, and on the other hand, to beef up security at the border. This was a particular frustration for Obama and the administration, I think. At one point, Obama said that you could put a moat full of crocodiles on the border and it still wouldn't convince people that he was doing enough. Obama was deporting record numbers of people. He had deported 2 million people by the start of his second term, which was more than any president in history. But there was a certain segment that was always going to feel that he was basically encouraging a flood of immigrants over the border.
I sort of got sidetracked there. So the bill gets drafted. Everyone in the Gang of Eight is OK with it. They have to go back to their caucuses; they have to sell it. It was not too hard a sell for the Democrats who basically want this legislation. On the Republican side, it was harder. ... They had to get enough Republican votes to put the bill over the line. So it was the job of Rubio and McCain and the other senators to sell it. At the last minute, it almost looked like they weren't going to have the votes, and there was this debate about how many Republican votes did they have to get to make it look like a bipartisan bill.
... So there was an amendment offered at the last minute to beef up border security even more, and that was finally enough for a few Republican senators, and the bill cleared the Senate. It looked like it was going to go all the way. This was a bipartisan bill, passed overwhelmingly by the United States Senate. All they had to do was pull the same trick in the House, and they were golden.
There was a lot of debate within the administration and among Democrats in Congress about the administration's role in this bill. It was obviously a big priority for Obama and something that he wanted to get done, but he wasn't sure if he would be most effective as the front man for this because there was a feeling ... that he's going to get attacked no matter what he does. There's a sort of fatalism about whether he should even try to do things or propose things.
With immigration, they were afraid that if this was seen as his bill, that would only encourage Republicans to oppose it, so he was asked to basically stay out of it. He was asked to stay as far from the process as possible, because if this was seen as the project of Republicans and Democrats working together in Congress, it might not become a sort of toxic priority of the dreaded Obama administration.
Well, the movement to defund Obamacare did not start with Ted Cruz. It actually started over the summer of 2013. It was a project of a lot of grassroots Republican Tea Party groups who were encouraging their members across the country to call their congressmen, get them to support this movement. And during the August recess, where a lot of members hear the airing of grievances from their constituents, this was something that the right-wing grassroots was pushing very, very, very hard.
So a cynic might say that Ted Cruz sort of jumped onboard with a bandwagon that was already underway. But, you know, a lot of Republicans signed the defund letter and vowed that they would not vote to continue government funding unless Obamacare was defunded.
Republicans today also look back on this episode as an instance of having made promises they couldn't keep. In order to win elections in 2010 and 2012, Republicans were promising their constituents that they would stop Obamacare. Obamacare was already the law of the land ... and Republicans didn't have a majority in both houses. But they were promising their constituents, "If you just send me to Washington, I will get rid of Obamacare."
Then the pressure was on them to do just that. And you had talk radio and conservative email lists ... saying, "We're going to run a primary against you if you can't stop Obamacare."
So Ted Cruz leaps to the front of this movement, and he decides he's going to exert some leadership. He is going to ... talk for hours and hours, get himself on TV, but also get attention for this movement and put pressure on the House, because as a senator, he doesn't have any power over what the House is going to do, and it's the Republican-controlled House that really has the power to push this.
And it worked. The establishment Republicans in the House started calling him Speaker Cruz, because he seemed to have more power to lead a lot of the Republicans in the House than John Boehner did. Boehner couldn't get the votes to pass the bill that the Senate had already passed to keep the government funded. I remember that night well. There was a frantic series of conferences in the Capitol, a frantic series of alternatives offered and failed votes and attempts to put something on the floor that could actually pass. And they couldn't do it. And midnight came and government shut down.
The Republican leadership was absolutely appalled by the Cruz filibuster. They felt he was grandstanding for his own political advantage. They felt he was doing something that was destructive to the party and to its goals, and particularly to its electoral chances. A lot of Republicans who had been there a lot longer than Ted Cruz were around for when Republicans shut down the government back in 1995/'96, and they didn't like that at all; it was terrible for them. It led to a huge backlash against the Republican Party. They didn't want to go through that again.
And you know, most of these people in the Republican establishment felt it was irresponsible. They went to Washington to govern, not to embark on what they felt were sort of self-defeating crusades. They felt that it was impossible to defund Obamacare, much as they might like to. A lot of Republicans in the House and Senate didn't like Obamacare, but they saw that through sheer math, it was impossible for them to get rid of it.
Cruz's perspective was, how do you know you can't do something if you haven't fought for it, if you haven't tried? Why would you give up a fight before you've even started it, just assuming that it can't be won? So his argument was, first we get the House to defund Obamacare; because it's a Republican House, we should have the votes if we just have the political will. And then in the Senate, all of those Democratic senators will see how much political will there is behind this idea. They'll start to get scared for their own re-elections in red or in purple states, and they'll decide that this is something that they have to go along with, too.
That was a fantasy. It was not going to happen. Even the most conservative Democrat in the Senate was not going to go along with getting rid of President Obama's signature achievement, and President Obama would never have signed such a bill. But to the extent that Cruz had a case to make, that was his case.
... They wanted to stop this by any means possible. The problem for Boehner, as ever, was that he wasn't in control of his caucus. ... There was a famous dinner with Ted Cruz and a bunch of House Republicans at the Tortilla Coast restaurant on the Hill where they sort of plotted their strategy.
... They hatched this plan. And the problem was, there may have been only 30 members of the House that were willing to shut down the government, but that was enough to deny John Boehner the votes to keep the government open, unless he got Democrats with him.
... Well, I don't think John Boehner was driving the train here. And when he realized he didn't have the votes to pass a so-called clean CR, a continuing resolution, with no strings attached that would keep the government funded, he decided he was going to let them, I think the phrase was "touch the hot stove," get burned, see what it felt like, and hopefully learn the lesson for next time.
There was another deadline looming, let's not forget. About two weeks after the government funding deadline was the debt ceiling deadline, and that was at least a political football, if not more so. If the debt ceiling doesn't get raised, there's the possibility of a national default, which would be catastrophic for the financial institutions of this country.
So Boehner, you know, with his alliance, I think you could say, with the business community, was very concerned that a default not happen. If he had to let the shutdown happen in order to stave off default, I think that was the choice he ultimately made.
Well, one thing the government shutdown definitely did not do is defund Obamacare. So on its own terms, on the terms that Ted Cruz set for it, for his quest, the shutdown was a failure. It did not set Obamacare back at all. In fact, it coincided with the rollout of HealthCare.gov, which was a disaster. A lot of Republicans were complaining that if only the government shutdown hadn't been the top of page one on every newspaper in the country, we would have been talking instead about what a failure the health care law was and how its implementation was going terribly.
But the shutdown helped to obscure all of that. In an ironic way, it may have actually helped Obamacare. It didn't achieve any of Republicans' policy goals. There were some concessions they might have hoped to extract on the government funding itself, some tweaks that they'd like to make to the way the government was funded. They didn't get any of those, because when it was time to end the shutdown, Democrats could basically put any condition they wanted on the table, and Republicans were so desperate to end the shutdown that they would agree to it.
So the shutdown set back Republicans' policy goals in terms of funding the government. It failed to defund Obamacare. It may have actually helped Obamacare. And it made Republicans look terrible. The approval ratings for the Republican Party, according to Gallup, plummeted to their lowest point since the first time Gallup started answering the question, which I believe was 30 years ago. The American public was really mad at the Republican Party.
Now, if you fast-forward a couple of years--this is the argument that Ted Cruz makes--yes, it was short-term pain, but it was long-term gain. And that's hard to argue with when you look at the results of the 2014 midterm elections. It's hard to say that the image problem Republicans suffered as a result of the shutdown really hurt them in the elections, because they won one of the biggest electoral waves in history just a year later.
A lot of things look different in retrospect. I was at a Ted Cruz event just the other day where he was introduced by a pastor who said: "We pray for leaders who will not compromise our values. Here is a man who does not compromise. He stopped the government." And everyone cheered. So for Ted Cruz, this became a calling card.
Yeah, the Tea Party caucus in the House believed Boehner sold them out. They believed he never listened to them, that he sold out their principles. And to the degree that they already mistrusted him and saw him as their antagonist, this deepened those rifts, deepened the divisions within the Republican Caucus.
I think the shutdown was a real turning point for the Republican Party in the sense that for the establishment, for John Boehner, even for a lot of people on the ideological right--I remember the Koch brothers issued a statement. The Koch brothers are strongly ideologically libertarian, fiscally conservative, very opposed to Obamacare and to expansion of government, but they were horrified by the shutdown. They were horrified by this brinkmanship and this lack of commitment to the governing process, and especially by the possibility of default.
You had a lot of the establishment Republicans feeling like this was the moment that they saw how far the Tea Partiers were willing to go ... These people will stop at nothing; there's no line they won't cross. There's no potential consequence too dire for them to continue to fight.
Well, hope springs eternal for immigration reform, and it was something that Boehner wanted. He wanted it for, I think, his allies in the business community, and it was something he was ideologically sympathetic to. I think one reason immigration reform never got anywhere in the House was it had a lot of allies but no leaders. There was no single Republican who was willing to stand up and champion immigration reform and be the face of it, who could take the attacks, who could argue the case, who could try to bring his colleagues along. You had John Boehner's sort of soft support for it. You had Paul Ryan, who was fighting behind the scenes in favor of immigration reform but was never willing to be the public face of it. There wasn't a Marco Rubio or a John McCain in the House trying to lead Republicans to immigration reform. It was just a lot of external forces.
But no, I think Boehner did think that his caucus learned a lesson from the shutdown and that they had seen, if nothing else in their own approval ratings, how risky some of these gambits were and the need to be constructive. And in the short term, they did. That's why they voted to reopen the government, because they did get scared. There was a little bit of a thaw, I think, in the House, and you did see some other things get passed.
But immigration reform was still hot a potato. ...
Eric Cantor's role in this is very interesting and a little bit ambiguous, because immigration reform advocates believed he was their ally. They believed that he was on their side. He said things to them privately that made them think that he was in favor of immigration reform. Publicly, that was not the case. Publicly, he was not necessarily an opponent, but he was as noncommittal as possible, and he certainly didn't want to be associated with the reform effort.
So he certainly was not a ringleader, but there was a feeling that he was on the side of reform.
Well, there's still a lot of debate about what message exactly the voters intended to send Eric Cantor. There was this grassroots candidate, David Brat, a college professor, deeply social[ly] conservative and deeply opposed to immigration reform. The main thrust of his wing-and-a-prayer campaign--it was very poorly funded; it was not given a chance really by anybody. The whole message of his campaign was that Eric Cantor supports amnesty and Dave Brat does not.
In retrospect, I think you can make a case that there were a lot of other things that accounted for Eric Cantor's loss--that he wasn't in touch with this district, that he had actually sent too many mixed messages on immigration reform so people didn't know where he stood, people didn't believe that he was being honest with them in terms of what he was telling his constituents, and that he ran a very aggressive campaign against his opponent that may have actually elevated his opponent's profile.
But the message that most people got from Eric Cantor's loss was that if you get anywhere near immigration reform, you will lose.
I think immigration reform was already dead, actually. But it certainly put a chill on the issue for the foreseeable future in the Republican Party.
It was a huge upset. I mean, nobody knew who this person was who was taking on Eric Cantor. He wasn't a member of the state legislature or anyone who was known in political circles. Cantor's own pollster told him he was, I believe, 30 points ahead. ... Because of this shocking upset of Eric Cantor, because Eric Cantor was able to be painted as pro-amnesty and defeated partly on that basis, the only message anyone, particularly Republicans in Congress, got from that election was, "Stay the heck away from immigration reform."
Yeah. Well, they did become allies, right? Boehner's people--Cantor was sort of a frenemy to Boehner for a long time. I forget what the turning point was, but there was a point where Boehner and Cantor became allies, and by the time of the shutdown, Cantor was really helping Boehner to try to bring the caucus in line.
Cantor was seen as part of the establishment. And if you listen to talk radio, if you were listening to Laura Ingraham or Mark Levin, Cantor was part of the Republican establishment that they were against. In this battle of the conservative movement versus the Republican Party, Cantor was one of those what they would term "go along to get along" party hacks, who didn't care about conservative principles; they just cared about keeping their jobs and their power going. And conservatives rose up against that.
Well, let's remember that Obama was already using executive action on a whole host of issues. He had given this speech where he said, I may not have the votes in Congress, "but I've got a pen and a phone," and I can do all these things with the power of the presidency. To Republicans, this was a challenge not just to their authority as co-equal members of government but to the Constitution itself. They really saw this as Obama illegitimately seizing power through the executive to pass legislation that he couldn't get through Congress.
So on immigration, this idea of executive action had been percolating for many months. Some of the more pessimistic members of the immigration reform community were convinced that the legislation was going nowhere and this was their only chance. For a while, there was a consensus that they wouldn't pressure the president to do this because they didn't want there to be a Plan B. They wanted to keep up hope for the legislation.
But when it became clear that the legislation wasn't going to happen--you've got to remember that these immigration reformers are dealing with thousands and millions of people who are worried every day that they're going to be deported, so if there was anything they could do for those people, they wanted to do it, and this was their last avenue.
So the president, who previously said he didn't have the authority to do these things, they worked on him and worked on him until he decided he did have the authority to do these things. ... Obama had already taken executive action on immigration. In 2012 when he was up for re-election, he deferred the deportations of the so-called DREAMers, the young, undocumented immigrants. Once again, you had Republicans sort of fainting from the unconstitutionality of it all as they saw it, and Democrats, a lot of them, convinced this was political suicide.
But it ended up working out pretty well, at least for President Obama. He obviously won the 2012 election. He mobilized the Hispanic vote very strongly. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this move. ... The executive actions of 2014 were seen as a continuation of that. And the administration's case for it was, number one, if we could do it for the DREAMers, we can do it for this other population of undocumented immigrants. That's the legal rationale. And then the political rationale is, we thought there would be a backlash. There wasn't, so there won't be now.
I was with Mitch McConnell on election night 2014. He held a little press gaggle, and I got the chance to ask him, you know, there was a mixed message being sent by all the Republican Senate candidates, right? On the one hand, they were saying: "Send me to Washington so I can stop the horrible Obama agenda. The only way to stop the Obama administration from ruining your life is to send more Republicans to Congress." On the other hand, they were also all saying: "Send me to Congress to get Washington working again, right? It's Obama's fault that Washington's not working. Send a bunch of Republicans to Congress, and we will work with the president to get things done."
Those are not compatible messages, but they were sending both messages. He was trying to take a statesman-like tone and say that he was going to work with the president to get all these things done if he became majority leader. On the other hand, he was campaigning against the Obama administration and all its priorities.
So I got a chance to ask him on election day of 2014, what is it you're going to work with the president to do? What are the potential areas of agreement? I believe he cited trade deals and tax reform. That was basically the whole list. I said, "What about immigration?," and he didn't want to go there. And there's really no other issue--the budget, maybe. There was really no other policy area where Republicans had any potential areas of agreement with Obama.
And I think both sides sort of realized this. Expectations were lowered to a healthy place.
Well, there was a view among Democrats in the White House that Republicans finally owned this thing, that if the gridlock and obstruction and lack of accomplishment of Congress of the past several years could be seen as a bipartisan problem--because you had one house in each party's hands. After the midterms of 2014, Republicans owned Congress, and if they wanted to look like a governing party, if they wanted to create a platform for their eventual presidential nominee, they were going to have to step up and do the responsible thing and come up with some constructive ideas that could actually be workable and get them passed through both houses and on the president's desk.
So yeah, there was a sense that this was an opportunity for Republicans, but also a challenge to them if they wanted to show that they were a party that could do more than just say no.
I remember that week that the Supreme Court signed off on both Obamacare and same-sex marriage, and there was this feeling that it was a great week for the White House. And I thought, why? The White House didn't have anything to do with either of these things. I mean, there was a sense in the White House of deferred satisfaction, like a lot of things that they had done right and been killed for, they were finally being vindicated. But it wasn't like the White House was doing anything differently. In a lot of ways, they were sort of passive on a lot of these things.
Look, I think Obama, after the midterms, was a lot more realistic and resigned to the limits of his power. On the one hand he was somewhat liberated by his lame-duck status, by the fact that the next campaign was out of his hands, so you did see him seeming freer in a lot of interviews and a lot of his statements to say what he thought. But on the other hand, a lot of the things he tried to do had already failed, so there was a sense he was going to focus on the things he could do, and all the big stuff was already off the table.
The story of race and the Obama administration is so complicated. He gave that powerful speech during the 2008 campaign about race, and a lot of the support for him in 2008 was based on this idea of racial healing and hope and coming together. One of the really difficult things, I think, for Obama was how constrained he felt in talking about race, that even a comment about Trayvon Martin that he thought was completely anonymous turned into this enormous racially charged controversy. He felt so hemmed in. He didn't want to be a spokesman for black America, but to a lot of African Americans that meant he went too far in the other direction and tried not to touch these issues at all for fear of inflaming them.
I think when he saw what happened in Charleston, he couldn't help but act, and that very moving speech that he gave and the way he broke into song at the end of it I think reminded people of that original Obama and the promise that he offered, even at a time that could not have seemed darker for the idea of racial healing.
I'm not sure I understand the question.
Are you talking about then or now?
Yeah, I mean, the conservative movement felt that they elected these Republicans. The Republicans went to Congress with their fat paychecks and their dinners with lobbyists, and they quickly developed a new set of priorities, which was about maintaining the status quo rather than changing and shaking things up in a conservative direction. At that point they became sellouts, and you had to get rid of them.
You look at the incumbents who were ousted, someone like Dick Luger in Indiana, who was a moderate, who was a compromiser, but who was someone with a long résumé of policy accomplishments, someone who authored major pieces of legislation over his decades in office on foreign affairs and nuclear proliferation where he partnered with the young Sen. Barack Obama on agriculture. That was the type of person that the conservatives believed had gone Washington, lost touch with his constituents, lost the fire in the belly for real ideological crusades on behalf of conservatism, and was willing to just go along with the Democrats to do things that conservatives didn't want.
So if you're asking about the origins of the split, I mean, there's still a lot of debate about this. If you're an establishment Republican, you think it was all a cynical ploy by Rush Limbaugh to increase his ratings by making people mad at the people representing them in Washington. But I think if you're a sincere member of the ideological right, which a lot of these people are, you really did believe that conservatism was not being advanced in any material way in Washington.
I mean, you had the Bush administration that spent eight years telling constituents that it was for small government, fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and what did George Bush do? He increased the size of government; created a giant, new entitlement program with Medicare Part D; certainly increased defense spending by a lot--conservatives still argue about the Iraq War; and was constantly making promises to social conservatives, saying that they'd pass an amendment to stop gay marriage, for example, and never had any intention of doing that.
So I think conservatives feeling like they got sold out started in the Bush administration and carried forward when they were in opposition.
I think the Freedom Caucus is just a new name for the old Tea Party caucus, but it's the same force. It's the same small band of conservative Republicans who are opposed to leadership, opposed to compromise, and feel that it's their job to get in the way of these deals that Speaker Boehner and now Speaker Ryan want to cut.
Well, you know, there was a thought in the House for a while where they did get some things passed, and Boehner was able to get some pieces of legislation through. But the conservatives in the caucus didn't go away, and they weren't mollified.
... I think one problem for Boehner is that he was never in touch with these people, not just that he failed to call them up and have them over for dinner, but he never got them. He wasn't coming from the same place they were coming from. He really didn't understand, and I think thought that they were just being jackasses, as he would probably put it; that's a favorite word of Boehner's. So I think there was a point where he just washed his hands of it and said, "I can't deal with you people."
Yeah, I think Boehner has even said that he decided to resign after the Pope visit because it was a capstone to his career, that as a Catholic it was personally powerful and meaningful to him. And he helped make it happen. His staff really brokered the first-ever visit of a sitting Pope to Congress. And so, he felt that was an achievement that he could go out on. He'd been thinking of retiring for a long time. ...
... Yeah. I mean, I always thought of John Boehner as the loneliest man in American politics ... The Tea Party hated him. The Democrats didn't like him very much either. There was no wing of either party, there was no grassroots support for John Boehner. There was no popular movement for John Boehner. And that's what put him in this sort of untenable position, that he represented the business wing of the Republican Party that wanted sort of gentle fiscal conservatism, but also to do the deal, to keep the government running, to get things like immigration reform. And that's not where the Republican Party was at the time that John Boehner was trying to lead it. That's what caused him so many problems and eventually I think led to his resignation.
Oh, that's right, because there was a deadline that was coming up right after he resigned.
At the time John Boehner resigned, there was another government funding deadline looming, and a grassroots movement was already afoot to tie this to a defunding of Planned Parenthood in the same way that they'd once tied government funding to a defunding of Obamacare. Boehner saw this coming. There was the potential for another shutdown; it was a real possibility. He knew that the only way to avoid it was to get a bill through with Democratic votes, because the bill to defund Planned Parenthood was not going to have the votes to pass.
So he used his resignation as a bargaining chip. He essentially said, "Do this one last thing for me." You can almost see him as a sort of martyr. ... He wanted to "clear the stables for the next speaker," a typically Boehner metaphor involving horse hockey, so the idea [was], he was going to get all this big stuff done, get all these deadlines cleared so that the next speaker would have a clean plate and be able to try to work with the more difficult members of the caucus without these looming deadlines, which had led to this succession of instances of governing by crisis, which had made it impossible to ever have stability in the House. So Boehner uses his resignation as a bargaining chip to get this one last bill passed.
In this particular instance or in general for Boehner?
Boehner was someone who--I mean, think about where he came from. He was a businessman from Cincinnati. Grew up working class, right. His father owned a bar. Boehner was in the plastics business and was moved to run for local office because he didn't like the effects of government regulations. This is a sort of classic business Republican, local chamber of commerce type, and he sort of, through a series of accidents and probably some skill as well, winds up speaker of the House.
He was someone who always wanted to make deals and who chased this dream of a Grand Bargain for years and years, believing that there could be this big package of entitlement reforms that would put government back on a fiscally sound path. He really tried to do it, but he could never get the buy-in from his caucus. His caucus didn't want to make the deal. I think John Boehner was fundamentally a status quo politician, and his caucus included a sizable number of radicals who wanted to alter the status quo.
Paul Ryan I think is someone who came to politics through policy and through the world of conservative think tanks and through working for Jack Kemp. He was always strongly committed to Republican ideas and to the idea of the party as a vehicle for conservative ideas.
So from the point where he created his own budget full of fiscal reforms through to when Republicans needed a speaker and they didn't have one, and there was nobody who seemed to want the job who could do the job--and I think he really didn't want it. He really would have rather spent weekends with his family and in fact demanded that he continue to be able to do that as a precondition.
But he felt that--and I think it was also felt by a lot of people around Paul Ryan that this would be bad for his career. If he ever wanted to run for president, or even statewide office in Wisconsin, being speaker of the House could only be bad because of all the baggage you take on trying to run this crazy house.
But he looked around, and he didn't see anyone else who would do it, and for his ideas, and for the Republican Party that he wanted to turn in a constructive direction, he felt that he had to do it.
Yeah. I don't even know if that's what leads to it. The really interesting thing about the Trump phenomenon is how it has reordered all of our assumptions about the split within the Republican Party. Ever since the rise of the Tea Party, we've seen the divide in the Republican Party as this establishment-versus-base dynamic, right? You have the conservatives on the one hand and the establishment on the other hand, and they're in conflict over the degree to which they're going to pursue a conservative agenda, and the tactics they're going to use to advance that agenda.
Along comes Trump, and he's not very clearly either of these things. On the one hand, he seems to be tapping the anti-establishment anger of the Tea Party, along with a whole host of other resentments and attitudes the Tea Party didn't want to be associated with, at least on its face. On the other hand, he doesn't subscribe to any of these conservative ideals. He believes in not reforming entitlements, not expanding our presence in foreign affairs, certainly not immigration.
On a host of this conservative litmus tests, Trump completely fails. And he wants to do deals; he wants to compromise. He wants to get Washington working again. So in that respect, he almost sounds like a John Boehner.
I think Trump has done one of two things. Either he has revealed that the conflict within the Republican Party wasn't about what we thought it was about, that the anger in the Republican base was much more about white identity politics and class resentment and race resentment and a sort of white working- class anger--that's one interpretation, that Trump saw a force that wasn't one of the forces in the Republican Party that we thought we saw, or at least that there was a third faction, that there was a Republican establishment, there was a conservative or Tea Party base, but then there was this third faction, and maybe they weren't voting in Republican primaries.
There's a lot of people I meet at Trump rallies who never voted in Republican primaries because no one was speaking for them; no one was speaking to their grievances. No one was voicing the discontent that they felt, which was economic discontent. These are people who, you know, ex-manufacturing workers who have been sort of left behind by the changes in the American economy and by globalization; social and cultural resentment, feeling that their attitudes have become politically incorrect and that the new identity politics of the civil rights and feminist movements has left them out and nobody's advocating for their interests. And this whole other force has been summoned by Trump, which really wasn't a part of the old Republican civil war.
If you were to look back at the Tea Party and say, "Well, the Republican Party is split, and you've got a Republican establishment that hates the conservative base and the conservative base that hates the Republican establishment, so there's going to be a candidate who rises in the Republican primary because he's able to tap in to that angry, anti-establishment, conservative base," that candidate was Ted Cruz, and Ted Cruz lost. The candidate who won, I think, came out of a completely different dynamic.
This is the incredible irony, right, of Obama's two terms in office, that a man elected on a platform of healing the American divide, bringing together the red states and the blue states and the Republicans and the Democrats, ends up leaving office with this country looking more polarized, more divided, more riven by ideological and other really tribal fissures than I can ever remember.
And who do we blame for that? A lot of this is long-term trends, the increasing partisan sorting. In other words, the increasing migration of liberals to the Democratic Party and conservatives to the Republican Party where previously they were more mixed and more geographically heterogeneous, that's something that's been going on for decades.
There's probably a racial aspect as well, where having an African American president I think created a backlash. And it was a backlash that Obama really didn't anticipate. I really think he thought that he could be a figure of racial healing and didn't anticipate the profound discomfort that it was going to cause a lot of people.
There's a lot of other factors as well. It's a very complicated story. You can't take Donald Trump out of it either. I think this story looks very different if it doesn't end with Donald Trump being nominated as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, because he has sowed a lot of new divisions that maybe were latent, maybe were lying dormant. But it didn't look like people were pitted against each other to quite this degree before he came along.
I remember that moment when Obama gives his final State of the Union in January, and he ends with this call against tribalism and in favor of more civil and respectful politics. And in the Republican response, [South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley says basically the same thing. She's supposed to give the response that rebuts the president and says why he's wrong, and she does that, but before she can get to that, she has the same message. She says: "Hey, this is scary right now what's happening. Let's not go down this road where we're all pitted against each other."
I think there's a feeling in the political class on both sides that something's percolating out there in America that they don't quite understand. There's a force that has been unleashed that they don't know how to get a handle on, and that frightens them a little bit.