Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A little respect for the GOP, please

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

The contemporary Republican Party, all things considered, may be the most angry, reckless, irresponsible, destructive, fanatical, and know-nothing “mainstream” political organization in the history of the United States. It wages relentless and punitive class warfare against the poor, who are by definition responsible for their condition and seek to live the good life on federal welfare. In its unquenchable hatred of government, it shuts down the national government, threatens the full faith and credit of the country, and inflicts additional damage on an already anemic economy and thus on millions of American lives. A minority entity, it seeks to impose its political will to power on the country through any means available, including the deliberate disenfranchisement of select segments of citizens, especially based on race. It will pursue any and all of its goals based on sheer ideological insistence indifferent to facts, knowledge, history, or scientific evidence. That said, the GOP is a passionate political party that takes its vocation seriously.

In October, Republicans manufactured a set of crises (fiscal, governmental, and economic) by refusing to negotiate a budget. In short, it held the country hostage in the pursuit of narrow political goals, more specifically the defunding of the Affordable Care Act. This time around Barack Obama and the Democrats refused to submit to GOP threats and the party finally abandoned its quixotic goal. In the wake of the recent government shutdown, the GOP’s ratings in national polls plummeted to new lows (no small achievement). Prominent officials (John McCain, Lindsay Graham, etc.) within the party were critical of Ted Cruz and the other hostage-takers for pursuing a doomed strategy. Still, as many observers have noted, Republicans continue to frame basic economic debates. They set the terms on sequestration, taxation, spending, entitlements, and social investment. There is no reason to believe Democrats will do anything other than compromise core ideals in their desire to reach a deal (any deal) to prevent a replay of October’s disaster.

As October deadlines approached and Republican desperation increased, the GOP tried to force Obama’s hand by criticizing him for refusing to negotiate. You’ll negotiate with Iran, but not with us, they moaned. Republicans did their best to shift responsibility for the shutdown and crisis onto Obama, but he wouldn’t take the bait. In fact, Obama made a point of saying he was not going to reward Republicans for doing their jobs. He later advised them to win an election if they want to see their goals realized. The country, by and large, agreed. Should it have? Maybe instead of giving advice Obama should have taken a lesson from Republicans.

It’s true that the GOP is a minority party and cannot achieve its political goals through the usual institutional means (elections, legislation, etc.). This does not mean, however, that other tactics are not available. The party recognized decades ago, for example, that it needed to seize control of the Federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, to work its will absent electoral success. The self-denying activism of John Roberts and crew is proof positive of its (most recent) success on this front. Dissatisfied of late with occasional victories, it tried a new set of tactics. Why not shut down government and jeopardize the good credit of the United States? Democrats are likely to blink and we can repeal the signature program of a hated rival who does not belong in the White House. If we do not succeed, we can still damage the very idea of government: call it win-win. The point here is that Republicans, especially after the debacle of the 2012 national elections, possessed few options for political advancement. Thus they turned to creative institutional measures. Democrats were right to block and denounce them, but the GOP was politically correct in its maneuvering. It might well have worked, after all. And Republicans had good reason to think it would work since another version of it had worked once before, thanks to Obama’s pusillanimity, leading to sequestration. This is what politics is all about and Republicans were willing to pursue it through whatever means available. Unlike Democrats, Republicans understand that they have enemies who must be defeated. If this cannot be achieved at the ballot box, there are other options available which might prove equally effective. Whether they will or not cannot be known in advance and Republicans were more than happy to experiment. For this they should be applauded; it expresses a love of politics, which is a risky undertaking and Republicans are willing to put their good names and party fortunes on the line for what they believe are noble and worthy goals.

During the crisis, they did not hesitate to insist that they were in the right. If they could convince the country of this assessment and force the Democrats to retreat, it would have been a remarkable political coup, one which would have reinvented American politics—not necessarily for the better, of course, but this judgment depends on perspective, which is part of what’s at stake in a political contest. Republicans have deployed similar tactics in the Senate to obstruct and derail Democratic initiatives for years, leading to a kind of de facto minority rule in the upper chamber. This success has come in the face of Democratic submission; Republicans may be attacked for their political vision, but Democrats are to blame for allowing Republican takeover of that body on a regular basis thanks to creative use of the filibuster. Republicans know how to practice politics; do Democrats? Republicans have identified the enemy and know how to treat it; do Democrats? Republicans are willing to stand on principle and be judged for the risks they take on its behalf; are Democrats? Republicans may be widely hated and rightly so; Democrats are widely disrespected and rightly so. Politically speaking, which is more problematic? Hate seems part and parcel of politics, to be expected, even welcomed as a matter of course; disrespect seems gratuitously self-inflicted and a sign of weakness, even cowardice. Republicans use the democratic process to produce decidedly undemocratic results, but in doing so they show greater regard for politics, even democracy than do Democrats.



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