'We're really up the creek."
That's professor Keith Poole of the University of Georgia talking to NPR, and he knows what he's talking about. His exhaustive study of congressional voting trends yields this clear conclusion: Republicans are now more conservative than they've been in 100 years. This is particularly true in the House, where the GOP is dominated by what Politico calls "the 'hell no' caucus."
The implications are enormous -- and disastrous. The last-minute deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" was almost certainly a false signal of comity and cooperation. Instead of building on that compromise, the reverse is happening. Lines are growing harder. Heels are digging deeper. Republican lawmakers who backed the deal are being excoriated as sellouts by their own colleagues. "The ones who voted for it, I think they will rue the day," says Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
In the weeks ahead, Congress is facing three major fiscal decisions: raising the debt limit, funding the government and dealing with the drastic budget cuts postponed for two months on New Year's Eve. But all the signs are ominously negative. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says additional revenues are off the table; House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says they're definitely on. President Barack Obama says he won't negotiate on the debt ceiling; House Speaker John Boehner says he won't negotiate with Obama on anything. And the new Republican whip, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, threatens to "shut down the government" if Republican don't get their way.
Up the creek, indeed.
"There's a lot of blame to go around," says Poole. Democrats have certainly become more liberal, adding to the paralysis. But it's "absolutely true," he insists, that the blame is not equal: "Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left."
There are several underlying reasons for this shift, starting with the way congressional districts are drawn. Gerrymandering has been part of American politics for 200 years, but the advent of highly precise, computer-driven maps has created entirely safe districts for the vast majority of House members. An essential element of democracy, accountability to the voters, has been destroyed.
A lawmaker with no fear of defeat has no incentive to listen to dissenters or cooperate with the other side. In fact, many GOP incumbents' only real concern is a primary challenge from the right, which makes them even more rigid and less amenable to compromise.
Statistician Nate Silver has graphically detailed this trend in The New York Times. Twenty years ago, there were 103 "swing" districts that could reasonably be won by either party. In the last election, that number dropped to 35 out of 435 seats, or about 8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of "landslide" districts, totally out of reach for one party, jumped from 123 to 242.
The problem goes deeper than a proliferation of safe districts that breed extremism. Fundamental fairness has been badly undermined. Redistricting thwarts the popular will. If you combine all House races, Democrats actually led by almost 1.4 million votes, but Republicans won 33 more seats. Yes, Democrats fleeced Republicans in a few states like Illinois, yet the GOP held the upper hand in far more places. Obama won Pennsylvania by five points, yet Democrats took only five of 18 House seats. In Ohio, where Obama ran three points ahead, Democrats won four of 16 seats.
Redistricting is not the whole story, however. Silver documents the drastic decline of ticket-splitting voters, which reinforces party fealty. Twenty years ago, there were 69 districts that voted one way for president and another for Congress; last year, that figure dropped to 12.
Then there is the phenomenon of "self-sorting," in which "voters may see their choice of where to live as partly reflecting a political decision," notes Silver. So liberals flock to the cities while conservatives move to the exurbs, further accelerating polarization.
A final factor: the rapid growth of well-financed interest groups that threaten to mount primary challenges against lawmakers who dare to deviate from ideological orthodoxy. One example: When Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a moderate Republican from West Virginia, announced her candidacy for the Senate, she was immediately attacked by conservative cadres as too squishy on their core issues.
"If Republicans in West Virginia want to save their country," fulminated a spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund, "they need to find another candidate with the courage to say 'no' to more spending and debt."
So happy New Year. And pass the paddle.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokiegmail.com.