Published November 20. 2012 4:00AM
Republicans just lost eight seats in the House. But if you'd wandered into the House of Representatives last week without reading the election returns, you might have concluded that the GOP won big on Nov. 6.
"We have the second-largest Republican House majority since World War II," California Rep. Tom McClintock told reporters last week. "The American people agree with the positions of the Republican Party and heartily disagree with the positions of the Democratic Party."
And if that's how you see things, why compromise?
Take taxes. Exit polling showed that, though most Americans don't like higher taxes, they'd accept a tax hike on the wealthy to reduce the federal deficit. Not House Republicans.
"We have a mandate to fight it," said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "I think that's what the American people elected us to do. We will continue to fight it, and we will fight any member of the (Republican) conference who decides it's a good idea to raise taxes."
It's not surprising that House conservatives see things their own way. Even if the country as a whole voted for President Barack Obama this month, conservative House members did just fine in their own districts.
Thanks to the inexorable forces of polarization, most House Republicans won re-election easily, and with margins bigger than Obama's, as they like to point out. ("I don't consider a 51 percent victory much of a mandate," sniffed Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.)
Of 216 House Republicans who ran for re-election, only 14 were defeated, a mortality rate of just over 6 percent.
Members of the tea party caucus did even better than that; only about 5 percent were defeated. (The losers included Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois, two especially fiery members whose constituents ran out of patience.)
Which Republicans lost their seats? Moderates and moderate conservatives, disproportionately.
Among the incumbents who ran for re-election, 48 were members of a group called the Republican Main Street Partnership, non-radical conservatives who sometimes call themselves "center right." Seven of those 48 lost their seats - a mortality rate of 15 percent, more than twice as high as Republicans in general.
When you add retirements and other departures, more than a dozen moderate conservatives won't be coming back next year.
Moderate Republicans were an endangered species in Congress even before this year's election. Now they're even closer to extinction.
"Our party isn't appealing to a national audience anymore," mourned Rep. Charles F. Bass of New Hampshire, a moderate conservative who lost his seat to a liberal Democrat after seven terms in the House. "The party is getting more and more dogmatic. The flexibility is gone."
"You know how many pro-choice Republicans are in the House today?" he asked me. "One - Richard Hanna (from Upstate New York). There used to be eight."
Since 1994, the GOP has been increasingly dominated by a conservative wing that demands orthodoxy on social issues as well as fiscal matters. Moderates often face primary challenges backed by well-organized national conservative groups. (That's how Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a moderate conservative icon, lost his job this year.)
Gerrymandering has produced more districts that are markedly conservative or liberal, with fewer swing districts in the center.
The tea party movement hasn't helped either. "They've been good for the debate but not for the party," Bass said.
This year, in an evenly balanced district, Bass found himself fighting charges from tea party activists that he wasn't tough enough on taxes and spending - and, at the same time, fighting charges from Democrats that he wasn't critical enough of his party's leadership. On Election Day, he lost narrowly to a well-funded Democrat.
We're left with a House Republican caucus that's more conservative, more Southern, more rural and seemingly less inclined than ever to compromise with a Democratic president and a Democratic-run Senate.
That means it won't be easy for House Speaker John A. Boehner to make a deal with Obama to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and spending cuts at the end of the year.
"Compromise has a very small constituency - very small," South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy told The Washington Post.
In that atmosphere, it won't be easy for Boehner to forge a compromise. But he has a strong incentive to get it done in the few weeks remaining on Congress' calendar this year. There will be fewer Republicans in the House next year, but they look even less likely to bend than the current crop.