Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Last Chance For The Republican Party

At this hour, Raul Labrador appears to be leading Walt Minnick for ID House seat 1.  But there are only a few precincts reporting so far, and I have no idea whether those are heavily Republican districts or not.  Republicans may still pull a draw with the Democrats in the Senate, but I am not terribly hopeful.  I guess House Republicans will have to rely on their control of power to tax (which the Constitution grants only to the House in Art. I, sec. 7):
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
I wrote the article below before the election, and could not sell it.  My predictions for the results turned out to be right, but not particularly startling.  The important part isn't the prediction, but what Republicans need to do.

The Last Chance for the Republican Party

I write this before the November mid-term elections.  I expect that Republicans will make a spectacular showing in the House, picking up at least 50 seats.  There is a real possibility that they will end up with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, too—but there is also a strong possibility that Democrats will retain the Senate by a razor-thin majority.  I expect to be pleased—but just barely.  Let me explain why.

Every week, I assign a question to my first semester U.S. History students, asking them to write one to two pages.  (This is a freshman history class, and I am trying to help them become writers, along with learning history.)  It is a relatively simple question, often based on some assigned reading.  

A couple of weeks back, the assigned reading was James Madison’s Federalist 10, in which Madison explains why the new Constitution that he wants the states to ratify will not have the traditional problem of a republic: factions, what today we would call partisan politics.  James Madison was a very smart guy—but many of my students managed to wade through the rather dense eighteenth century writing, and see that he blew it.

As Madison explained it, traditional republics, of small geographic and population size, had failed because factions inevitably formed.  Small republics, as Madison saw it, were at high risk of such factions becoming tyrannical because a majority might form around a religious belief, public policy, or even attachment to particular leaders.  A national republic, however, would be unlikely to suffer that fate because a majority of a single state would simply not be a majority at the national level.  What Madison missed was that factions could easily cross state boundaries.  Massachusetts Federalists rapidly coalesced with Federalists in New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, and elsewhere—creating a national majority faction that passed the abusive Sedition Act of 1798.

Madison also missed that factions might come together to form what we now call political parties: the odd coalition of groups that shared only a small amount of common beliefs, other than the common interest in control of the government.  Environmentalists, labor unions, civil rights activists, and Wall Street came together to elect Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress because each was willing to turn a blind eye to what each of the other factions was going to get for itself.

Democrats are not unique in this matter of being a coalition of factions.  The Republican Party is also a coalition of factions, with a few common elements, and surprising diversity.  Throughout most of my lifetime, the Republican Party enjoyed only two major advantages when it came to the corrupting business of government: there were fewer factions in the Republican coalition trying to resolve internal inconsistencies, and some of those factions at least felt guilty when they were dipping their fingers into the cookie jar, or the Congressional page pool.  Guilt sometimes restrains behavior—or at least, with Rep. Dan Crane (R-IL) in 1983, they feel some guilt about their misbehavior.  The same was pretty clearly not the case with Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA).

I have no illusions that we are electing choir boys (or girls) to Congress.  I know that there are many opportunities to take advantage of your office: to get rich; to get sex; to abuse the perqs of office.  I know that even decent people are seduced by these temptations.  If Congress were doing a great job of running the country, a lot of Americans would be annoyed, but tolerant.  We are way past that point—and it is not just the Democrats at fault.  

Republicans in Congress had the opportunity when they had majorities in both houses to deal with the subprime mortgage disaster before the bubble grew to a size that destroyed our economy, forced massive unemployment, and sent a huge fraction of Americans into foreclosure.  But businesses with an economic interest in the bubble seem to have owned enough Republicans (and nearly all Democrats) to stop this. 
Republicans had the chance to make at least steps towards correcting the health insurance situation in 2004, when the Bush Administration was looking for free market solutions that would have at least given many uninsured Americans a way to buy coverage at a reasonable price.  But the combination of health insurers and labor unions with their control of both Republicans and Democrats blocked these reasonable efforts from going forward.

My students are profoundly cynical.  Even the ones who make Republican noises are angry, and with good reason.  A Republican majority has the opportunity to take concrete steps that are wildly popular with not only Republicans, but rank and file Democrats as well.  They just won’t be steps that will make the interest groups that own Congressmen (of both parties) very happy.  

1.             Close the border—with troops if need be.  Obama wants to bring them all home from Afghanistan?  I know somewhere to put them.
2.             Punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens—and watch unemployment for those legally here drop, and wages rise.  Almost every person who is working—instead of collecting unemployment or some form of government assistance—is going to be grateful.
3.             Remove existing state regulatory boundaries on health insurance pools.  There is no reason that, as an example, hundreds of thousands of small businesses cannot form a 20 million employee group health insurance plan, providing affordable, even if limited coverage for small businessmen and their employees.  Bush proposed this in 2004.  It was a good idea, even it did not solve the whole problem.
4.             Decouple health insurance from employment, by allowing individuals to take a $5000 per person tax deduction for health insurance—and taxing all health insurance offered by employers that exceeds that level.  Bush proposed this in 2004, as did McCain in 2008.  It was a good idea, even if it wasn’t perfect.  But make a serious effort to resolve this problem.

I hear the anger and cynicism all around me.  A lot of voters who got snookered by Obama and the Democrats in 2008 are voting Republican this time around.  Another round that leaves voters, especially young voters singing, “Don’t get fooled again” might be the last chance that the Republican Party has to retain power.  I worry that it might be the last chance to reform American government before the pitchforks and torches come out.


  1. But the line that comes after "we won't get fooled again," is "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
    My fear is that with the relative success of conservative politicians this cycle will wash out and be forgotten in two years. I was almost hoping that the Republican/Tea Party would make far less significant gains in order to make greater gains in 2012. If, and it's a big if, the angst and commitment for conservative principles remains fervent for the next two years we may then begin to undo some of the damage that has been done over the last 20 years. Excellent piece!

  2. I'm certainly one who's in the cynical camp: I'm giving the Republicans four years to get their act together. If they cannot do that, I will be seeking elsewhere politicians that will do something.

    Actually, it's more like three years: we'll need to have time to campaign.

  3. I'm afraid too many people are close to giving up.

    Because if the Republicans screw this up it IS going to be ugly. To quote (IIRC) Neal Stephenson, most of the rest of the world is either plowing their fields or field stripping their AKs. I've seen those parts of the world. We don't want to live like that.

    Hell, we don't even want to live like f'ing Italy. Which is about the best case if things keep on the way they are.