Until this week, Democrats were as split as Republicans over the debt ceiling endgame. But John Boehner has a far tougher task in keeping his party unified, and it is rooted in the very different political character of the rank and file membership within the House.
A substantial part of the Democratic caucus consists of professional politicians who have climbed the ladder in a manner that makes them responsive to their party’s demands – they often won their first primaries by maneuvering to gain institutional support, and their ambitions invariably turn on the good graces of their party leadership. In turn, they are partisans first, ideologues second.
After the demise of the Blue Dogs in 2010, the remaining Democrats also represent disproportionately liberal districts where their pressure emanates from a base that scolds them for not doing enough to help President Obama.
In sharp contrast, a major part of the Republican caucus, particularly its massive freshman class, consists of relative newcomers who did not form ties by climbing the traditional ranks, and in many cases, won their primaries by overcoming their party establishment and their local versions of John Boehner. More of them owe their organizational strength to the Tea Party than to the local chamber of commerce.
As a result, their ideological fervor shapes them much more than their party loyalty. Their hopes for advancement rest as much on carving out a profile with their party’s “movement conservatives” as it does currying favor on the Hill. Their external pressure arises from a base that loathes Barack Obama and grades them based on the intensity of their opposition to his agenda.
Rallying the Democrats I describe to swallow a deal that is imperfect but “supports the President” is one thing; rallying the Republicans I describe to make an accommodation that cuts spending but salvages Obama is an infinitely harder mission. That is the reality that constrains John Boehner and it has the potential to wreck a deal even after one is reached.