The Zombie Party

Public opinion is steadily moving away from the Republican Party, as is America's demographic future. President Obama's three-point re-election win understated that reality, while events since Election Day have underscored it.

Public opinion dramatically favors restoring higher tax rates on the top 2 percent. Large majorities oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare. Acceptance of same-sex marriage is increasing, and is already the overwhelming majority view of those under 40 -- the future electorate. Most Americans don't support the absence of any regulation of combat weapons.

It is hard to know who was the bigger fool of the week's public debates, House Speaker John Boehner or NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. No critic could have done a better job of discrediting the NRA than LaPierre himself. And Boehner, trying to corral a caucus divided between right-wingers and ultra-right-wingers, fell on his face.

And yet a Republican Party, as personified by the House Majority, is the zombie that has been overtaken by public opinion but will neither change nor get out-of-the-way.

So reforms desired by most American voters will be a long time coming.

A majority of Americans voted to send a Democrat to the House. But thanks to gerrymandering and a concentration of liberal voters in large cities, the House stayed Republican. And because most Tea-Party Republican members of Congress hold safe seats, they are unlikely to moderate their views, no matter how far out of touch with broader public opinion, no matter how damaging to the broader Republican Party.

After Boehner proved unable to deliver his caucus for his own Plan B raising taxes only on those with incomes over a million dollars, much less for a compromise with President Obama, it is now likely that taxes will increase for everyone on January 2 when the Bush tax cuts expire.

Obama, mercifully, has given up the quest for a grand bargain that he never should have pursued in the first place. His current position -- let's just preserve the tax cuts on the bottom 98 percent and fight about the rest of the budget another day -- is exactly what it should have been all along.

The fiscal cliff was always a misleading metaphor. When withholding goes up for everyone in the first pay period of the New Year, there will be a temporary drag on the recovery. But Republicans, even of the Tea Party variety, will be unable to withstand the political pressure. Within a month, they will approve legislation to cut taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The longer they delay, they more they will destroy their own party. Obama holds the cards.

My guess is that this vote will split the Republican House Caucus. Every House Democrat, and perhaps 30 or 40 House Republicans who have to worry about being re-elected will support cutting taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The rest of the House Republican Caucus will vote against the measure, as diehards, putting them on record as opposing a tax cut for nearly all Americans. This is the behavior of political zombies.

The automatic spending cuts mandated by the dreaded sequester deal of 2011, will also be deferred. Republicans and Democrats will simply have to agree to disagree for now, lest they really do destroy what is a too feeble recovery.

Sensible gun control, which commands majority support, will be a long time coming. The Newtown massacre of first graders, combined with the sheer lunacy of the NRA, has smoked out the extremism of the gun lobby. But even though very few Republicans leapt to support LaPierre's nutty proposals, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress are still opposed to gun control. More evidence of a party that is politically dead but doesn't know it.

One person who could help get us more quickly to the next political era is President Obama. The president has been handed two winning issues on a platter: Tax the richest, rather than hacking away at Social Security and Medicare. Get military weapons off the street, rather than trying to set up a watch list of everyone who has ever sought help for emotional stress, or setting up gunfights at the OK Corral in our elementary schools.

I'm surely grateful that Barack Obama, rather than Mitt Romney, is in the White House. But he could be doing a lot more to put a stake through the political heart of the zombie opposition.

After Boehner fell on his face, the president at last took Social Security cuts off the budget table. Having once supported something close to the gun-lobby's view of the Second Amendment, Obama said all the right things after the Newtown shootings, though he turned over the initiative to a panel to be headed by Vice President Biden.

What's not quite there is the passion and leadership that a truly effective president would display, given the immense political tailwind at his back. As a consequence, a Republican party that is increasingly out of touch with public opinion will continue to block policies that enjoy majority support, even though that party doesn't know that it is politically dead.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a Senior Fellow at Demos.