The inevitable consequence of overreach

THE INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE OF OVERREACH…. Just seven weeks into 2011, Republicans at the state and national level have removed words like “modest” and “incremental” from their lexicon. In the wake of last year’s midterm victories, GOP officials are convinced they have a mandate to pursue a bold, right-wing agenda.

In Congress, Republicans are gutting health care, slashing spending on domestic priorities like education, ignoring job creation, and pushing a variety of culture-war measures, targeting, among other things, reproductive rights. At the same time, in statehouses, GOP officials are cutting taxes and picking fights with state employees.

The NYT ponders the likelihood of the dreaded “overreach.”

[I]n the view of officials from both major political parties, Republicans may be risking the same kind of electoral backlash Democrats suffered after they were perceived as overreaching.

Public surveys suggest that most voters do not share the Republicans’ fervor for the deep cuts adopted by the House, or for drastically slashing the power of public-sector unions. And independent voters have historically been averse to displays of political partisanship that have been played out over the last week.

“If Republicans push too far and overreach their mandate, they will be punished by independent voters, just as they were in 1996,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. “Voters said they wanted bold action. They are getting bold action. But Republicans need to be constantly reminded that the last election was a referendum for change, not a referendum for the G.O.P.”

Now, the article seems to take it as a given that President Obama overreached in 2009. I tend to think that’s ridiculous — the Democratic agenda was consistently modest and in line with the American mainstream, even in facing massive crises — though it appears the establishment has embraced the meme with both arms.

Having said that, it’s still worth appreciating two larger points. The first is that Republicans genuinely seem to believe they have a mandate for a far-right agenda, and they’re wrong.

“They are taking some kind of public expression of deep concern about the economy and turning it into something entirely different,” former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said. “They are making a mistake. They say: ‘Well, we won the election. Elections have consequences.’ And I say, yes, and we are going to have another election next year.”

This is reinforced by ample polling showing Americans approving of cuts in the abstract, but balking at GOP-favored policies like slashing funds for education, health care, and other domestic priorities. (There’s a reason the DCCC was smiling after Republicans approved their cuts early Saturday morning.)

The second is that overreach always leads to the same result: a backlash. The listless Democratic base is waking up, getting engaged, and finding themselves more energized than they’ve been in a while.

The irony is, John Boehner and other GOP leaders saw this as a distinct possibility before the new Congress began. They saw what happened to Gingrich in 1995, and they had every intention of avoiding the appearance of overreach.

But the party can’t seem to help itself. The question isn’t whether Republicans will pay a price, but how big it will be.