Sometimes you just can’t win. And sometimes even winning doesn’t work the way you want it to. Pity the Republicans. Currently, Republicans control most governorships and most state legislatures. And their success in the states over the years put them in the position of being able to redraw the boundaries of certain congressional districts. These victories have made it impossible for the Republican Speaker of the House to do politics — which is to say, make deals.
Maybe you’ve seen this political carton before. It’s been around — it was first printed in 1812. Back then, Massachusetts’ Governor Gerry and his allies redrew the lines of the state’s electoral districts to give his party safe-and-sure voting districts. One of the districts was so contorted that on a map it looked like a salamander. And since it was the handiwork of Governor Gerry, it became known as a gerrymander. This is the monster that dined on the House of Representatives the last two years.
Sometimes the people drawing political maps want to break up an area where the opponent has a sure win, other times they may want to draw a district that snakes this way and that in order to gather like-minded voters into a safe-for-our-party haven. But there’s a dangerous downside for a political party that gerrymanders too well.
When a party has redrawn congressional districts so it will surely win, the real contest becomes the primary vote. Then the only question is who the sure-to-win party will run in the upcoming congressional election. But the only people who turn out to vote in the party’s primary are the most zealous members of the party — a relative minority. And that minority of zealots tends to be further to the left or further to the right of the national party. This is particularly true for Republicans. (Think Tea Party.)
Fortunately, politicians can’t redraw state boundaries. Senators have to seek votes across an entire state, not a rigged congressional district. There are some no-compromise senators, but on the whole the Senate is more temperate and more moderate than the House — which is what the founders planned. Now a bipartisan group of eight senators has come up with an outline for immigration reform. After the presidential election, the Republican party realized that it would go on losing national elections unless it took a position on immigration that was within at least a few hundred miles of the Democratic party.
The senators who signed their names to the plan are heavyweights with influence — Democrats Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin, Robert Mendez, and Michael Bennett, plus Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Jeff Flake. For those reckless enough to bet on Congress, the odds makers favor passage of some kind of real immigration bill in the Senate.
But if the Senate does pass the bipartisan bill, the odds are against it winning a majority of Republicans in the House. When Republicans swept into the House two years ago, a good number of them came from districts where extremely conservative groups had succeeded in winning primaries and the subsequent Congressional election. Those Representatives aren’t representative of their party, only of their little congressional district. Thus far, that has made it impossible for the Republican Speaker of the House to induce, cajole, jawbone or whip enough Republican representatives into any bipartisan deal, no matter how attractive it looked to him and the rest of the world. So weep, yes, weep, for John Boehner, Speaker of the House.
Crucial bills will be making their way through Congress over the next several weeks. The gerrymander is alive and well and there’s no telling how many will make it out alive.