For those seeking an explanation of US politics, there was no better primer than President Obama's December 6th address to the nation and the Republican response. The President made six points and Republicans rejected most. The two political parties might as well live on different planets.
To begin with, the President defended his plan to fight the terrorists. "Our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary." His plan involves minimal boots on the ground. "We will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground... In both countries, we're deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that offensive."
The electorate is split about whether or not the US should send ground troops into Iraq and Syria. The latest CNN/Ipsos poll, taken just before the President's speech, found that 53 percent of respondents favor sending in troops. However, this was due to an uptick in Republican militancy: 75 percent of Republicans favor sending troops, Independents are evenly split, and only 39 percent of Democrats favor sending ground troops.
Even though Republican voters want to send troops into the Middle East, the GOP presidential candidates are more circumspect. Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Paul Waldman observed that of the 14 Republican candidates only Senator Lindsey Graham has actually spoken of putting "10,000 American troops" in Syria.
Next Obama said, "Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun." Republicans see this as yet another piece of gun-control legislation and they've dug in their collective heels and blocked it. (Factcheck.org noted: "Obama's proposal would allow the government the ability to prevent those on the no-fly list from legally purchasing weapons... There were about 6,400 U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents on the no-fly list as of last year, Terrorist Screening Center Director Christopher M. Piehota told a House committee at a September 18, 2014, hearing.") 77 percent of Americans support this legislation.
The President's third point was " We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in [recent terrorist actions]." Once again, most Democrats see this as a common-sense measure but Republicans have been unwilling to let any relevant legislation come to a vote. (The latest CBS News/New York Times poll found that 58 percent of respondents want gun laws "made more strict.")
Obama's fourth point was, "we should put in place strong screening for those who come to a America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they've traveled to warzones." On December 8th, the House of Representatives passed comparable legislation and looks as if this may soon become law.
The President's fifth point was: "If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists." At this writing, there appears to be little chance that Congress will accommodate Obama in the near future. Neither Party is satisfied with the President's request for a new authorization of military force; Republicans want it to be stronger and Democrats want it to be weaker.
President Obama's final point was tolerance to Muslims. "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam... If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies."
Many Republicans disagree with this. The leading GOP presidential contender, Donald Trump called for: "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." While many Republican leaders disapproved of this stance, rank-and-file Republicans embraced it. A Bloomberg poll found that 51 percent of Republicans strongly favored Trump's proposal and 14 percent favored it somewhat. (Overall, 37 percent of voters favored the proposal to some extent.)
Republicans disagree with Democrats on 5 of the 6 points. Some of this might be explained as politics as usual, and we are in the presidential campaign season, but it's due to two more ominous trends.
For the past 7 years, Republicans have made it their practice to oppose everything that President Obama has suggested: from clean water to sensible gun control to a measured approach in the Middle East. It was once Washington policy for the two parties to disagree on domestic affairs but stand together on foreign policy. That bit of comity disappeared as soon as Obama was elected.
Republicans attacked the President's policies and attacked him personally. A recent Hill Poll found that 43 percent of Republicans continue to believe Obama is a Muslim. Donald Trump caters to this; after the San Bernardino shootings he attempted to link them to President Obama, "There is something going on with him that we don't know about."
Donald Trump and the Republican establishment subscribe to the "mushroom" theory of politics: keep their voters in the dark and feed them full of s**t. This explains why the two parties are so different and why Trump leads the GOP.