Off Center?

OFF CENTER?….Last year, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote an influential and widely-read book called Off Center. It argued that the Republican Party had moved dramatically to the right of the American public, something that would normally spell electoral doom, but was getting away with this thanks to a broad and remarkably robust set of institutional controls it had put in place over the past decade. These controls hid the GOP’s true aims, allowed moderates to fly under the radar when they supported hard-right legislation, and provided “backlash insurance” for incumbents when they voted for highly unpopular bills. (Quick summary here.)

At the time, Hacker and Pierson (kinda, sorta) argued that this was likely to last a long time. A year later, we know it didn’t. The center reasserted itself in fine fashion. In the New Republic today, they take a stab at explaining what happened:

While the machine they built was capable of withstanding a Category Three storm, what hit Republicans this year was more like a Category Five — mainly thanks to Iraq.

Jeez, guys, that’s it? A whole book about the GOP’s institutional hegemony, and now you say that all it took for this stuff to break down was for Iraq to get a little worse than it was last year? Hmmph.

Still, while they might have skipped a little too lightly over this explanation, they do have an interesting point to make: with Democrats now in control, most (though not all) of the Republican Party’s institutional advantages are gone, and this means that in the future they’re going to find it far more difficult to paper over the extreme rightward tilt of their caucus:

Now, Republicans are in serious trouble. Not only is their pay-to-play alliance with K Street in ruins, but they can no longer use their majority power to obscure their radicalism….After all, the GOP took its heaviest losses within its moderate ranks. In an even more conservative Republican caucus, there will be a powerful faction that blames defeat on insufficient clarity and urges a further pull to the right.

Democrats should give this faction the clarity it wants. In pursuing their own agenda, they need to put the GOP between the rock of its intense base and the hard place of swing voters on every key issue–from basic kitchen-table concerns (like health care and college tuition), to reform issues (like reestablishing pay-as-you-go budget rules and ensuring electoral fairness), to less controversial social issues (like stem-cell research).

Most people — including a lot of rank-and file Republicans, I think — simply don’t realize just how radical the modern, Texified GOP is. But with majority control Democrats now have the institutional power to expose this at every turn, and Republicans have far less ability to hide it. If they’re smart, Dems will use this newfound power at every opportunity.