On Monday afternoon, the four candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in South Dakota participated in a forum in Sioux Falls. The event itself was unremarkable, with each candidate offering his views on issues ranging from foreign policy to health care. But the race also offered a view into what Congress would be like if Republicans hadn’t chosen to obstruct President Obama's entire agenda—and what could be accomplished under those conditions.
Larry Pressler, the former GOP senator who is now running as an independent, does not agree with Democrats on many issues. He’s very concerned about the deficit and was even a member of the group of deficit hawks named “Fix the Debt.” He wants to means test Medicare and raise the retirement age for Social Security. He also would consider overturning Roe vs. Wade and is a big proponent of tort reform. “I don’t agree with Obama on very many things,” he said during Monday’s forum. To solidify his anti-Obama credentials, he also told the crowd that he hosted a fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012 and donated to his campaign.
Those are all relatively standard Republican positions, but where Pressler departs from the GOP is his willingness to work with the president, most notably on the Affordable Care Act. Pressler told the crowd that he probably would have opposed the bill if he had been in Congress in 2010, but he does not support repealing or replacing it. Instead, he wants to work with the president to make Obamacare better. (During the forum he even said the law should be called the “conservative Republican health care plan.”)
He also departs with the GOP on issues like taxes and immigration. Last week, he told MSNBC’s Suzy Khimm that the GOP is “poisonously locked” into its anti-tax position that prevents the party from addressing the actual deficit. He called for a surtax on incomes over $1 million, the elimination of the mortgage-interest deduction for second homes and the closure of certain corporate tax breaks. He also supports legalizing same-sex marriage and raising the minimum wage. He wants to deploy troops on the Southern border to stop illegal immigration and supports President George W. Bush’s plan for immigration reform that included a five-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
At first blush, it may seem like Pressler is living up to his independent candidacy. And technically that is true: On some issues, he supports the GOP. On others, he’s closer to the Democrats. But this is only the case because the Republican Party has swung so far to the right. With the exception of supporting same-sex marriage and a pathway to citizenship, Pressler’s Democratic positions—slightly more revenue in return for significant spending cuts, a moderate increase in the minimum wage, and reforming Obamacare—aren’t very Democratic. In fact, Pressler's platform is mostly a mix of centrist and Republican positions. In years past, that would make him a Republican, not an Independent.
To understand this, imagine what Republicans would propose if they weren’t set on blocking Obama’s agenda. It would likely include fixes for Obamacare, a small raise in the minimum wage, and big spending cuts in return for small revenue increases. We already know what a compromise on immigration reform looks like, since it passed the Senate with 68 votes in 2013 and has been blocked in the House ever since—and it included a pathway to citizenship.
Even if the GOP hadn’t move so far to the right, Pressler would still be closer to the center than the average Republican congressman. But he would have a spot firmly in the party. That’s no longer the case. Instead, the Republican candidate for the Senate in South Dakota is Mike Rounds. To his credit, Rounds isn’t nearly as far-right as some of the Republicans running this year, like Joni Ernst. But he still wants to repeal and replace all parts of Obamacare and demands that the government secure the border before considering legal status for undocumented immigrants. That doesn’t leave any room for compromising with Democrats and President Obama. And that’s exactly why partisan gridlock persists.