Some seven years after celebrating his victory with an exuberant late-night speech in Grant Park, a no longer jubilant Barack Obama—wearier, grayer, even enervated—began the last year of his second term with a speech in the East Room of the White House, announcing executive action on gun-control measures which he had been unable to get through Congress. The resplendent red tie — his carefully chosen metaphor from his triumphant night in 2008 — was long gone. Shedding tears as he discussed the young victims of gun violence and school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Knoxville, Tennessee, the president set out steps to close the gun show loophole and mandate background checks for every gun purchase, to deny guns to individuals on the no-fly list, and to improve funding for mental health.
It was, if anything, a largely symbolic move, whose efficacy was questioned even by liberal columnists and supporters. Obama despaired that a similar package of reforms had failed to move through Congress after 20 elementary school students were massacred at Sandy Hook in December 2012. He wondered aloud why Republicans had become so intransigent on any gun control, why even the basic background checks supported by Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain and once even by the NRA were now met with cries that the government wanted to take away citizens’ guns. “Yes, the gun lobby is loud,” Obama said. “The rest of us, we all have to be just as passionate.” Congress blocks laws, the president argued, “because they want to win elections.” Make it hard for Republicans to win elections, he suggested, and “they’ll change course. I promise you.”
Obama’s frustration and tears were real, despite suggestions from conservatives in the media that they were generated by an onion stashed somewhere behind the podium. His analysis, however, missed the root cause of congressional inaction. In 2012, Democratic candidates for Congress received more votes than Republican candidates. For the first time in 40 years, the party that received the most votes failed to take control of the House. The people did vote for candidates who believed in gun-control reforms. Obama had it backward: it’s the Republican mapmakers who gerrymandered our democracy so effectively after the GOP’s historic 2010 victory who have made it hard for the voters to affect elections. The strategy was dubbed REDMAP, for Redistricting Majority Project, and it was brilliant in its execution. With $30 million or less than the cost of some losing Senate races — smartly spent in the right districts in the right states — Republican strategists turned the House of Representatives red for a decade, and maybe longer.
It paid immediate dividends. If the 2012 election had been fought without the GOP’s redistricting firewall, some form of the gun-control reform which failed to make it through Congress after Sandy Hook likely would have been enacted. On issue after issue—climate change, immigration, reproductive rights, guns, the minimum wage—public-opinion polling shows broad support for the president’s proposals. They have been stymied not because they are unpopular but because our politics have become paralyzed, held hostage by the most extreme wing of a minority party which figured out how to rig the game in its favor.
The strategists behind this plan may not even have realized how effective it would be—or how hard it would be to control. Throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2011, Republican consultants and mapmakers cashed in the gains from their successful REDMAP strategy. Flush from victories that gave them control of almost 70 legislative chambers nationwide just in time for the crucial decennial redistricting, they set to work transforming the nation’s political map. It started in cities such as Columbus, Madison, Raleigh, Lansing and Tallahassee, as well as in other purple-state capitals that now tilted decisively toward the GOP. But as John Boehner’s political team helped influence Ohio’s new congressional lines, he probably never imagined that his party’s aggressive redistricting maneuvers would contribute to his being toppled as Speaker of the House just four years later. The redistricting “ratfuck” had blowback, and there would be unintended consequences—for the Republican Party and the entire U.S. government.
On September 25, 2015, Boehner announced that he would step down as Speaker and also resign from Congress. In a twist worthy of Shakespearean tragedy, or at least a plot twist on “House of Cards,” the powerful Republican second in line to the presidency was destroyed by uncontrollable renegades from his own party, most of them new members of Congress elected during the 2010 Tea Party wave or with the friendlier REDMAP lines in 2012 or 2014. These Republicans, fueled by Fox News and conservative talk radio, and protected by gerrymandered districts, cared for compromise as little as they liked Obamacare.
Boehner found himself stuck. He was trapped by the demands of governance, specifically by his responsibility to negotiate with a Democratic president on things as important passing a federal budget and avoiding a default on the national debt. Meeting those responsibilities, and meeting the president somewhere in the middle, only inflamed the House Freedom Caucus—the “suicide caucus,” as they were dubbed by conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. The renegades preferred to force a government shutdown, or at least a showdown, over Tea Party principles rather than hammer out agreement. They viewed even as staunch a conservative as Boehner, once a newcomer revolutionary like themselves, as just another suspect, dealmaking Washington insider. With a 246–188 GOP majority, Boehner held the largest Republican House advantage since 1947. Yet he could no longer command it.
This majority may have been built with a gerrymandered mirage, but no one told that to the new congressmen representing these carefully designed and overly insulated districts. Forty-three of the 45 House Freedom Caucus rebels who deposed Boehner were “guaranteed” reelection with only the most token opposition, wrote Hedrick Smith, a former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Those 45 members won by an average of 38 points in 2014, he noted. Only two had faced a legitimate challenger. Three had faced no opposition at all. More than 30 of them had arrived thanks to the 2010 Tea Party wave, or the gerrymandered REDMAP maps that followed. “With protected political monopolies back home, the rebels take little or no political risk and pay no political price for opposing their speaker and adopting extremist positions that bring Congress to a halt,” Smith wrote.
For the rebels, the GOP majority was real. They wanted to use the party’s edge, aggressively and decisively, to roll back Obamacare, derogate and defund Planned Parenthood, battle over the debt limit, and enforce a hard line on immigration. They did not care if the Speaker and other party leaders weren’t up for the same fight. The huge GOP congressional majorities, meanwhile, created outsized expectations of conservative victories, especially among the base and within conservative media, firing up a virulently angry GOP electorate just as the 2016 presidential race began and fueling the rise of outsiders like tough-talker Donald Trump and trusted true believers like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Veteran conservative leaders including Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie struggled to find traction as the legislative hydra unleashed by gerrymandering took over the GOP. Talk about ratfucked.
For Boehner, however, the end was almost poetic. It came at the hands of Mark Meadows, the former owner of Aunt D’s sandwich shop in Sylva, North Carolina. Meadows found his way to Washington after the 2011 North Carolina gerrymander transformed the 11th congressional district, represented at the time by three-term Democratic incumbent Heath Shuler, into one of the most conservative in the state. Shuler took one look at the new lines and knew he was finished. The rural mountain towns of North Carolina have never been particularly friendly to Democrats; this is the terrain where Eric Rudolph hid for years after being identified as the 1996 Olympics bomber.
Before 2011, the heart of the 11th had been the funky college city of Asheville, home to art galleries and vegan cafés and feminist bookstores. The GOP mapmakers cracked the city. They split Asheville in two, scattering the Democratic votes. (This is another example of why the popular “Big Sort” redistricting theory fails after the GOP’s post-2010 remapping project; like-minded Democrats may have sorted themselves by moving to Asheville, but their political influence was diluted intentionally by how the boundaries were drawn.) Shuler was a classic conservative Blue Dog Democrat, a moderate-to-conservative religious Southerner who supported gun rights and opposed abortion. He was no fan of Obamacare or Nancy Pelosi; he stood against her for minority leader. But his nuanced approach fit the district; even in the 2010 cycle that had proven so challenging for Democrats, Shuler was reelected by 21,000 votes and a 54.3 to 45.7 margin.
The new 11th established a safe Republican district for a very different kind of conservative. Meadows campaigned as a Tea Partier and repeatedly questioned President Obama’s citizenship. “2012 is the time we’re going to send Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever it is,” he said at one rally. He won with 57 percent of the vote, and increased his numbers to 63 percent in 2014. Gerrymandering had replaced a complicated, gutsy Democrat, one who knew how to work with the other side and was regularly rated as one of the least partisan House members, with an intractable, obdurate Republican.
But Meadows did have a savvy understanding of parliamentary procedure, especially for a newcomer from the mountains of western North Carolina. In late July 2015, Meadows offered what’s called a motion to vacate the chair, essentially a vote of no confidence in Boehner, to the surprise of both House leadership and even Meadows’s band of revolutionaries. It hadn’t been tried in the House in more than 100 years, but this move ultimately forced the split within the caucus to a head, and pried the gavel from Boehner’s hands. “The displeasure and difficulty this decision created with some of my colleagues is hard to hear,” Meadows later told the Daily Signal, a news site run by the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People who disagree with me don’t know the support I have back home.”
This parliamentary move may have been what broke Boehner’s back, but it was not Meadows’s first aggressive play. In August 2013, after being in Congress for only eight months, Meadows collected the signatures of 80 conservative House members on a letter to Boehner calling for the Speaker to tie defunding Obamacare to a government shutdown. Boehner had already decided against this course. Even Karl Rove thought it was a horrible idea. The Democrats at this point, after all, still controlled the Senate, so there was no chance it would actually work.
But when Boehner caved to the insurgents’ strategy, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and David Wasserman, the leading voice on the demographics of House districts, wanted to know more about who these 80 members were and where they lived. They ran some numbers and discovered, shockingly, that Republican districts in 2012, after redistricting, had been drawn more white, even as national trends marched toward greater diversity. The average district won by a Republican in 2012 was 2 percent more white than it had been in 2010. Those 80 conservatives were elected from districts, on average, that were 75 percent white, compared to the national average of 63. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama defeated Romney by 4 percentage points. In the 80 districts held by the insurgent conservatives, Romney won by an average of 23 points. The congressmen—and 76 of the 80 were men—managed even larger victory margins, an average of 34 points.
These are the numbers that led to a government shutdown. These are the numbers that explain why 20 elementary school children can be gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut, and yet a horrified nation demanding gun control can’t find a majority in Congress. These are the numbers that led two of the wisest nonpartisan analysts in Washington, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, to ring the alarm bells for democracy. “The Republican Party continues to demonstrate that it is an insurgent force in our politics,” they wrote in their essential book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” “The old conservative GOP has been transformed into a party beholden to ideological zealots,” they added, without “respect for facts, evidence, science, [or] a willingness to compromise.”
The Republicans built themselves an unbreakable majority. They turned Democrats like Heath Shuler into a caucus of firebrands like Meadows. The party’s control was complete. Except, of course, that they were no longer in control at all. No one was. The door was wide open for Donald Trump.
Democrats announced their 2020 redistricting play to great fanfare in 2015. It did not, however, include a single strategy likely to work. Instead, the DLCC launched something called Advantage 2020 and announced plans to spend in the ballpark of $70 million “trying to chip away at GOP majorities.” Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe later signed on to run Unrig the Map, an effort through the Democratic Governors Association. “We’re late to the game, but we don’t have to come up with a new strategy,” a leading Democratic fundraiser told the New York Times. “We just have to adapt to their strategy.”
That’s a sucker’s bet and a losing game, even if the Democrats succeed in raising that much money. Indeed, Democrats are behind already. During the summer of 2015, the RSLC launched REDMAP 2020, a $125 million project to lock in and expand their gains.
“REDMAP 2020 will work to maintain the historic highs we hold today, including those in Obama-blue states, while working to pick up additional majorities in states like Kentucky, Maine and New Mexico where the legislatures play a vital role in crafting district boundaries, and Republicans currently control only one of the two state chambers,” the RSLC proclaimed. “It’s exciting for the future of the Republican Party.”
The Republicans are strategizing in plain sight once again. Perhaps most troublingly, they may not have learned any lessons from 2010 about how hard it is to keep control of the base after taking control of a state.
In December 1988, not long before he left the presidency, Ronald Reagan sat for a long interview with veteran journalist David Brinkley, who was then at ABC. He used the presidential bully pulpit this last time to campaign for redistricting reform, and to call attention to the dangers of allowing politicians to draw their own lines and pick their own voters. Reagan prefaced his comments by calling them “sheer dynamite,” and cautioning that “some people are going to erupt when I say it, but I think maybe our Founding Fathers made something of a mistake in the method of reapportionment.” Reagan had to work with a House of Representatives weighted in the Democrats’ favor; perhaps that’s why he saw the problem so clearly. “I think that this is a great conflict of interest,” he said, before promoting a plan for a bipartisan citizens’ committee of top-ranking citizens to handle redistricting in each state.
In his final State of the Union address in 2016, wearing a black-and-gray striped tie perhaps chosen to avoid a color associated with either party, Barack Obama, like Reagan, clearly identified the problem right at the end of his presidency. “There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base,” the president said. “But that means if we want a better politics – and I’m addressing the American people now – it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”
Maybe, as a first step toward compromise, both parties could admit Ronald Reaganand Barack Obama are right. The House of Representatives was designed to be the chamber most responsive to the will of the people. Instead, it has become impervious and insulated from it. More money flows into politics with each cycle. Map-making technology will only improve. We allow partisans of either side to continue controlling this hidden but essential function at our own peril.
Excerpted from “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy” by David Daley. Published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton. Copyright © 2016 by David Daley. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.