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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bipartisan Glory Days

(LEFT: Time Magazine cover photo from February 7, 2011).

I saw Chris Matthews last weekend at Politics and Prose bookstore. He was irascible, enthusiastic, energetic, and incredibly smart, just as he is on MSNBC. He was touting his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, which examines the unique relationship between Matthews' former boss, Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and President Reagan during the 1980s. Matthews portrays their relationship as one in which both camps were able to temper their extremities and the most radical elements in their parties to forge a cohesive, cooperative relationship. As such, O'Neill "made Reagan a better president," as Matthews put it, by stopping him from enacting a full-throated right wing domestic agenda and Reagan's landslide election victories compelled O'Neill to allow for fair, up-or-down votes in the House on Reagan's legislative priorities like his 1981 tax cuts. Matthews longs for this kind of relationship between President Obama and Speaker Boehner and wishes to see the President and the Speaker craft agreements on infrastructure investment, an overhaul of the tax code, and immigration reform akin to those that Reagan and O'Neill struck. It is important though to acknowledge the central reasons why this is not happening (reasons Matthews acknowledged at P & P) and how they differ from the realities of the political landscape of the 80s. Further, it is vital to demonstrate how the agreements Reagan and O'Neill struck were similar to legislation Obama has either already signed or offered and there is one, glaring unfortunate truth about political history - discussed at the bottom here - that requires further inspection.

First, the core reason Obama and Boehner have not been able to forge the kind of partnership that Reagan and O'Neill forged is because of the extreme right-wing element of the Republican Party. The far-right of the GOP dominates the party's House caucus, is not fearful of national public opinion because of their gerrymandered partisan districts, and more and more Republican voters buy into their ideological rigidity. This is not the case on the other side of the aisle. In fact, as showed in an August 2013 article, a plurality of registered Democrats actually favor their party becoming more moderate. Extreme left-wing elements of the Democratic Party hold little sway over the party's behavior in Congress; if they did wield more influence, the Democrats would not have conceded sequester level spending in the shutdown fight. In the 1980s, the party out of the White House was far more ideologically diverse and in less gerrymandered districts than the congressional GOP is today. In fact, many House Democrats represented districts President Reagan won twice. This helps explain why the Reagan 1981 tax cut - backed even by Democrats like Dick Gephardt - passed the Democratic-controlled House. Today, only 17 House Republicans are from districts President Obama won in 2012. Therefore, Speaker Boehner is continually influenced by a far-right House GOP caucus with no interest in negotiating with the President; in fact, many of them have either expressed doubt about Obama's birthplace or represent districts where large percentages of voters believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim anti-American socialist.

Boehner, afraid of losing his speakership, has consistently bowed to the right-wing elements of the party or, at times, he has been forced to backpedal on deals with the President because of the far right. This is why Obama and Boehner failed to achieve a "grand bargain" in the summer of 2011, it is why Boehner will not bring a vote to the floor on immigration reform, and it is why he allowed the government to shut down for over two weeks. On the other side, Democrats are more than willing to negotiate; many in the party have conceded some kind of entitlement reform, are willing to vote for an immigration bill that greatly increases border security, and they have conceded sequester level spending for now. This spirit of compromise is simply inexistent in the majority of the GOP House caucus at the moment. This was plainly not the case with the congressional Democrats and Speaker O'Neill in the 1980s.

Second, the deals struck by Reagan and O'Neill were good, common sense, and broadly popular agreements because they took the best ideas of both liberal thinking and conservative thinking and crafted them into solid public policy. For instance, the 1983 Social Security reform they agreed to was successful and well-liked for precisely this reason. It combined the Democratic ideas of raising the payroll tax and incorporating federal employees into the Social Security system with the Republican ideas of reducing benefits and raising the retirement age (necessary at the time) to create the kind of meaningful reform that increased the solvency of Social Security by several decades. The 1986 tax reform law is another example of such a concept. This overhaul of the tax code combined the best Democratic ideas of eliminating billions of dollars in tax loopholes, eliminating many taxes on the working poor, and raising corporate taxes with the best Republican ideas of lowering the top tax rate, simplifying the tax code, and making the bill revenue-neutral.

Today, this kind of unique craftsmanship exists but what is preventing these kinds of deals from earning wide, bipartisan support is the refusal on the part of many in the Republican Party to back something with Obama's stamp of approval on it. Obama's health care reform law is a classic example. Obamacare literally combines the best conservative ideas on health reform -- the individual mandate (the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney), marketplace competition that lowers prices, and Medicare cuts -- with the best liberal ideas on health reform, such as subsidizing and broadening insurance access for the uninsured through regulated private plans and a Medicaid expansion, redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor to finance their insurance, and tough new consumer protections and rules imposed on insurance companies. You would think such a bipartisan concept would attract GOP votes in Congress. Instead, not a single Republican in Congress voted for the law in large part because the GOP wanted to present a unified front against Obama to, as Sen. Mitch McConnell put it, see to it that Obama became a one-term president. It is that principle of standing up to the President that also motivated why McConnell, according to Act of Congress, refused to back the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law despite White House compromises that made the 2010 bill more amendable to Republicans. Now that President Obama has been reelected, this attitude has not subsided. Even wildly popular and once-bipartisan ideas like universal background checks for gun sales and immigration reform -- both of which combine good ideas from both sides -- have hit roadblocks in Congress. The simple reason is because the Republican Party has become extremely ideologically rigid and right wing and many of their members don't want to hand the President a victory. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, emphasized the latter point himself after the Manchin/Toomey background checks amendment was defeated. In the 1980s, the Democrats in Congress, including Speaker O'Neill, were willing to accept good, agreeable GOP ideas in exchange for securing their own party's policy objectives as part of broader deals. Personal animosity towards President Reagan from congressional Democrats was virtually nonexistent in comparison to the vitriol Republicans like Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann, and Steve King hurl at President Obama.

Third, an interesting aspect of American political history comes to mind when thinking of why the Reagan-O'Neill partnership was fruitful and why Obama and the congressional GOP have been at constant impasses. The credit for this thought goes to my dad. After the Matthews event, he noted that, if you think about it, we have plenty of examples of Republican Presidents and Democratic Congresses working well together and enacting good reforms but virtually no examples, in modern history, of Democratic Presidents and Republican Congresses enjoying a similar kind of relationship. He is absolutely right. President Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress worked together to expand Social Security, broaden federal aid for health and education initiatives, to create the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and to establish the Interstate Highway System. President Nixon and a Democratic Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Drug Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Supplemental Security Income. President Reagan and a Democratic Congress passed Social Security reform and tax reform, expanded Medicaid, ratified the INF Treaty, and granted citizenship to three million undocumented immigrants. President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress passed a comprehensively renewed Clean Air Act, the American Disabilities Act, the 1990 tax increase, and federal investments in advanced technology research. President George W. Bush and a Democratic Senate, from 2001-2003, authorized the war against al-Qaeda, created the Department of Homeland Security, passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, and passed the Sarbanes-Oxley regulatory reform; Bush and the Democratic Congress from 2007-2009 worked together to raise the minimum wage, enact the 9/11 Commission recommendations, strengthen lobbying and ethics reform, and save the country from financial collapse in 2008.

However, think about the record of Democratic Presidents working with Republican Congresses. Since Republicans took back the House in January 2011, President Obama, whose first two years in office were enormously legislatively productive, has not signed any major legislation into law. It is true that President Clinton and the GOP Congress enacted welfare reform and balanced the budget four times -- but Speaker Gingrich also dragged the government into 26 shutdown days in 1995-96 over budget disagreements and the House impeached the President in 1998. President Truman famously excoriated the Republican Congress when he essentially ran against them in 1948, tarring them as the "do-nothing Congress" and furious over the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law. President Wilson could not reach an agreement with the Republican-controlled Senate from 1919 to 1921 to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and ensure U.S. entrance into the League of Nations. So the evidence is there that GOP presidents work well with Democratic Congresses but Democratic presidents do not work well with GOP Congresses. Why this is the case is a question I am not sure I know the answer to and I would love to hear why my readers think this is the case. Is this really a broader pattern we can draw any conclusions from or is it merely circumstantial? It's something my dad pointed out and according to him, deep ideological reasons exist for why this pattern persists. He posits that it it is easier for GOP presidents, who are almost always more moderate than the party's congressional base and electorate, to accept changes or compromises in a progressive direction -- because these changes benefit more Americans thus making these policies not only good policies but also very popular -- than it is for Democratic presidents to accept policy changes in a more conservative direction because that would mean accepting compromises or actions that would limit or contract popular safety net programs that are not only good public investments but also extremely popular. Perhaps. It is a theory worth exploring.

In the end, Chris Matthews' hope for something like a Reagan-O'Neill partnership rekindling in American politics is a hope I share because I too want to see politics work. There are a lot of good, bipartisan bills proposed in Congress today -- ones that would help veterans, military families, enact immigration reform, toughen gun laws, reform the tax code, and make college more affordable -- that are sitting on the back burner but have the President's support. The missing ingredient is Speaker Boehner's willingness to buck the Tea Party and allow for a vote on these bills. Of course, stronger underlying political realities exist too that prevent good policy and good politics from coming to fruition and these facts are aforementioned. No matter how you slice or dice it, 2013 is no 1983.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Huge, Huge Waste of Time

(LEFT: House Speaker John Boehner in the Capitol).

The Republican Party's strategy of shutting down the government and threatening the default of our debt was really stupid. This is especially true now that Speaker Boehner decided to cave and accept a continuing resolution to fund the government and an extension of the debt limit -- without any changes to Obamacare or any right-wing policies the GOP was seeking in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. For one, the strategy did not achieve GOP aims. Obamacare went live anyway because the main components of the law are not affected by the regular congressional appropriations process. The law actually became more popular in the meantime as seven percent more of Americans, than before the shutdown, said they liked the law. The eventual Senate deal does not even change the law at all except to require income verification from the HHS -- something the letter of the law permits already. Meanwhile, the Republicans' refusal to accept a clean CR and a clean raise of the debt ceiling (which, by the way, was already a compromise from Democrats who had sought repeal of the sequester) led to their poll numbers nosediving to their lowest levels ever according to Gallup and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling.

The most fascinating result of the poll though was that by a 52%-46% margin, the public said they favored a more activist government -- a government that "does more, not less." In June, the question of "more vs. less" was a 48%-48% tie in the same exact poll. Political scientists analyzed in 1995 that the shutdown would cause many Americans to see the benefits of government as they saw all the vital federal agencies that affect people's lives closed. This was proven true again this year. This fact deals a huge blow to the GOP's overriding ideology of embracing shrinking and diminished government services as well; in fact, some Republican members of Congress, like Sen. David Vitter, celebrated that some agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, were closed. The public is not celebrating though. Lastly, the short-term political future for the GOP looks awful now too as polling from Public Policy Polling and other institutes indicate that a Democratic takeover of the House -- something that was unthinkable months ago -- now appears at least slightly more likely than before the shutdown. Interestingly, few political observers now doubt that President Obama will be only the second president since the Civil War to see his party gain House seats in the sixth year of his presidency (President Clinton in 1998 was the first one). It appears that Obama's refusal to capitulate to GOP demands -- something that many fellow progressives were a bit pleasantly surprised to see -- has not been the political loser that several GOP Congressmen claimed it would be.

So, in the end, the whole ordeal was a huge waste of time for a Republican Party that could have used that time to highlight problems with the Obamacare rollout - as Ezra Klein pointed out on MSNBC last week - and they could have utilized the summer public outrage over the NSA to actually live up to their "smaller government" rhetoric (though it would have been hypocritical given their support of President Bush's counterterrorism policies). More importantly, this shutdown was unfortunately a huge waste of time and waste of resources for the country as GDP declined and our credit rating was put on negative watch by a credit agency. It is laughable to see the Republicans in Congress claim that they care so much about economic growth, as opposed to ostensibly a lack of care from the President, when it is their brinksmanship and budget cutting, not Obama's stimulus law or health care law, that have again and again hampered job growth, eviscerated the public sector, and caused worldwide consternation regarding our political system and economic health. The debate of the last two weeks, as well as the continual budget battles since 2011, are also a huge waste of time because they distract us from talking about the kind of investments in infrastructure and education that our country badly needs or the economic inequality or broken immigration system that persist without serious comprehensive reform.

If the 2012 election was not a wake up call for the GOP, perhaps this episode will be. Predictions of the "end of the GOP" are overblown and as long as some conservative public policy ideas like balancing the budget and shrinking regulations remain relatively popular, the GOP will still have a shot at recapturing the support of the public. For now though, they have really, really hurt themselves badly and wasted our time, plain and simple.