Obama’s only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition’s most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.
This theory of political transformation rests on the weaponization (and slight bastardization) of the work by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek. Skowronek has written extensively about what distinguishes transformational presidents from caretaker presidents. In order for a president to be transformational, the old order has to fall as the orthodoxies that kept it in power exhaust themselves. Obama’s gambit in 2009 was to build a new post-partisan consensus. That didn’t work, but by exploiting the weaknesses of today’s Republican Party, Obama has an opportunity to hasten the demise of the old order by increasing the political cost of having the GOP coalition defined by Second Amendment absolutists, climate science deniers, supporters of “self-deportation” and the pure no-tax wing.
The president has the ambition and has picked a second-term agenda that can lead to clarifying fights. The next necessary condition for this theory to work rests on the Republican response. Obama needs two things from the GOP: overreaction and charismatic dissenters. They’re not going to give this to him willingly, of course, but mounting pressures in the party and the personal ambitions of individual players may offer it to him anyway. Indeed, Republicans are serving him some of this recipe already on gun control, immigration, and the broader issue of fiscal policy…
If the Republican Party finds itself destabilized right now, it is in part because the president has already implemented a version of this strategy. In the 2012 campaign, the president successfully transformed the most intense conservative positions into liabilities on immigration and the role of government. Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination on a platform of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants—and the Obama team never let Hispanics forget it. The Obama campaign also branded Republicans with Romney’s ill-chosen words about 47 percent of Americans as the party of uncaring millionaires.