In 2012, Barack Obama travelled the country promising that if he defeated Mitt Romney, in 2013 the Republican Party’s “fever may break.” Didn’t happen. In 2013, the GOP Congress remained just as hostile to Obamacare, citizenship for illegal immigrants, and a budget deal that includes higher taxes as it had in 2012. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in two areas, 2013 did witness a potential break in the Verdun-like standoff between America’s two parties. And the two men most responsible were completely unknown a year ago and don’t even reside in the United States: Edward Snowden and the Pope.
First, Snowden. For a few years now, it’s been clear that while Cheneyism still dominates the Republican foreign policy elite, many grassroots conservatives are less than thrilled about a permanent, wildly expensive “war on terror” that gives the federal government virtually unchecked power to spy on Americans. By exposing the breathtaking reach of National Security Agency surveillance, Snowden empowered these conservative insurgents. In July, despite the unified opposition of House GOP leaders, 94 House Republicans voted to limit NSA spying. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Republicans who believe the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties has jumped 18 points since 2010, and now exceeds the level among Democrats.
Spying divides Democrats along similar lines. The party’s foreign policy elites are more willing to trust the NSA with vast surveillance powers, at least when they control the White House. And Democratic leaders don’t want to jeopardize their success in overcoming the party’s reputation as “soft on terror.” But as in the GOP, the further you get from the centers of governmental power, the unhappier Democrats are with NSA spying.
It’s now possible to imagine the surveillance issue dividing insiders from outsiders in the 2016 primaries in both parties. Chris Christie and Rand Paul have already begun sparring over the issue. And it’s a good bet that whoever challenges Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination will take a harder line against the Obama administration’s record on spying and drones. Despite the depressingly static nature of Washington partisan conflict, America’s national security debate is being scrambled in ways not seen since 9/11. And Snowden is a big part of the reason why.
The other figure scrambling Washington debates in a way Obama can’t is Pope Francis. First of all, he’s helping bury the culture war. It’s harder to claim that secular liberals threaten Christianity when they’re madly applauding the most prominent Christian leader in the world, and he’s applauding back. Second, Francis is fueling a debate about economic inequality and government’s responsibility to the poor. That’s mildly uncomfortable for Democrats, who since the Clinton era have been more comfortable talking about the problems of the middle class, and whose policy wonks generally believe it’s necessary to cut entitlements. But the really interesting impact is on the GOP. Because Francis is probably the non-American who Republican elites revere most, and because he stands outside Washington’s partisan scrum, his focus on poverty is convincing some GOP leaders that they should focus on it too. From Ralph Reed to Newt Gingrich to Paul Ryan, prominent Republicans have begun talking about remaking their party in Francis’s image. It’s unclear if they mean real policy change, or mere rebranding. But even if leading Republicans merely shift away from the radically individualistic, Tea Party-esque message of recent years to something closer to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” it would change the tenor of America’s economic debate in ways we haven’t seen since the financial crisis hit.
If you look at American politics from the inside-outside out—at the fights over Obamacare, the budget and the confirmation of nominees—it looks predictable and depressing. But if you look from the outside-in, you can see the way forces beyond the Beltway are remaking the terms of Washington debate. Maybe 2013 wasn’t so bad after all.