The contrary goals of each faction within the GOP doom it to stutter around pretending to lead. This, apparently, is the will of the American people…whoever the fuck they are these days.

At its root is a divide between the Republican congressional leadership and a significant portion of its caucuses. The leaders believe they are best off projecting calm competence by governing without excess drama. They seek modest policy wins on trade and a handful of other issues, and would like to pass conservative bills that the president may veto but that are popular and so leave the Republicans in better shape heading into 2016 elections.

That strategy is a recognition of a simple constitutional fact: President Obama will be in office until January 2017, and it takes more votes to override a presidential veto than the Republicans have. So their best bet to enact a conservative agenda, in this line of thinking, is to maximize the odds that 2016 will be a Republican wave election on the order of what the Democrats experienced in 2008, with a Republican president paired with congressional majorities in both houses.

Everything before that, in this view, is a sideshow. Unfortunately, if you’re Mr. Boehner or Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the sideshows have been the main event in the first 90 days of the 114th Congress.

This puts them at odds with a vocal portion of their own caucuses, who favor a more maximalist approach, aiming to use whatever levers they have to try to extract major policy concessions from the president. It is the negotiating strategy that failed miserably, for example, when Republicans demanded a repeal of Mr. Obama’s signature health law in exchange for keeping the government funded and raising the federal debt ceiling in fall 2013, and most recently in the showdown over Homeland Security funding.

The White House, meanwhile, is largely staying above the fray, laying out to lawmakers its own priorities and deal-killers but leaving Republican leaders to work out among themselves a path to keep the machinery of government working.


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