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January 6, 2015 / Sandy Asher

“IT AIN’T OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER”: REPUBLICANS, DEMOCRATS, AND THE GAME OF POLITICS by Harvey Asher, Ph.D.

The Republican shift to the right paid huge dividends in the 2014 midterms and demonstrated a mastery of lobbying, filibustering, gerrymandering, litigation, and voter suppression tactics. At first glance, it appears the triumph indicates a transformational shift whereby the new politics of extremism has permanently damaged the constitutional system. (Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, 2012.)

But let’s look beyond the first glance.

It’s often the case that when a movement has already peaked, analyses of the subject tend to mushroom. That is likely happening right now. The new, more conservative, but still mainstream Republicans had already succeeded in getting moderate Mitt Romney to head the 2012 ticket over Tea Party preferences Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the same leadership avoided choosing extremist candidates whose public gaffes had embarrassed the party and cost it support.  Most tellingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now encourages fellow Republicans to become the “party of yes.”

Republican intransigence during the first six years of the Obama administration turns out to be just another example, albeit a particularly unpleasant one,  of politics as usual.  The tactics and strategies closely resemble those introduced by Representative Newt Gingrich in the late 1970s  to unite Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor while at the same time attacking them as a majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution — the United States Congress. Gingrich believed a minority party did better when Congress accomplished less.  According to this thinking, the dividends of cooperation and the passage of bipartisan bills, while getting Republicans 20 to 30 percent of what they wanted, were insufficient for the American people to change leadership.  Better to get less or nothing at all, pile blame on Democrats, and win elections.  (Alex Seitz Wald, “How Newt Gingrich Crippled Congress,” The Nation, January 30, 2014.)

In 1995 and 1996 when the Republicans had a majority in both houses of Congress, Speaker Gingrich pushed for a balanced budget requirement and a three-fifths vote for any tax increase.  After President Clinton refused to agree to cuts in welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid expenditures, Gingrich twice shut down the government.

His tactics also conflated the personal and the political. He told reporters the shutdown in part came because the president made him exit Air Force One by the back door after they returned from a funeral service for slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. (Brian Naylor, “Not-So-Fond Memories from the Last Government Shutdown,” NPR, September 20, 2013.)  His own adulteries notwithstanding, Gingrich also led the drive to impeach President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Taking a page from the Gingrich playbook, following Obama’s 2008 win, minority Senate leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed the Republican opposition’s main goal was to prevent the president’s reelection. Driven by Tea Party pressure, he played a critical role in transforming Republicans into “the party of no,” dismissive of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional evidence, and scornful of the legitimacy of the political opposition.   In 2013, House Speaker John Boehner caved in to extremist pressures by shutting down the government when President Obama refused to dismantle the Affordable Health Care Act.

Almost extinct in the party’s makeup as it veered sharply to the right were old line traditional Republicans who would occasionally cosponsor an environmental bill or at least engage in intelligent debate, and did not consider compromise a dirty word.  The loss of this small contingent of moderates and the civil discourse they practiced added nastiness and incivility to the usual gamesmanship at the heart of “politics as usual.”

The boundaries between the political and the personal likewise narrowed.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger considered running for president in 2003, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch proposed a constitutional amendment eliminating the American birth requirement. But during Obama’s first presidential campaign five years later, “birthers” insisted he was born in Kenya and ineligible to run, adding a subtle or not so subtle racial aspect to their opposition. However, Obama’s victory indicated that in 21st century America, the race card alone was insufficient to do in an African-American candidate who possessed charisma, intelligence, and effective campaigning skills.

Despite the tremendous gains in 2014, the presidency still eludes Republican grasp, in part because of choosing uncharismatic, off-putting nominees who might carry the conservative white vote but would not win over sufficient numbers of women and minorities, many of whom live below the poverty line and are unhappy with Republican insensitivity or hostility toward their concerns. Mitt Romney certainly did not help his cause when he proposed self-deportation as the solution to the illegal immigrant problem, and wrote off half the country’s population as spongers.

And, as Republicans know all too well, presidents can accomplish a lot even when lacking majorities in both Houses. By 1996, President Clinton’s popularity recovered, the economy boomed, and he left office with a budget surplus. This last mid-term drubbing did not make Obama a lame duck president; no longer worried about reelection, a “tougher” President Obama bypassed Congress by issuing executive orders offering deportation deferrals for up to five million illegal immigrants, and allowing diplomatic openings to Cuba.

In 2016, Republicans can once more assure their defeat by nominating the likes of ideologues Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. The Democrats run the same risk if they choose an old-fashioned progressive like Elizabeth Warren. While Republican politics moved to the extreme right, the broader public has yet to reach that stage, which doesn’t mean it is ready to embrace a traditional progressive either. If Jeb Bush gets the call as Hillary Clinton’s opponent, the contest will be a tossup, and the winner will govern from either center-right or center-left.

Has there been a shift to the right in both parties?  Yes. Will the pendulum swing back toward the center? Yes, probably as early as 2016, when more Republican than Democratic seats are up for reelection, and the Republican Party will be judged on what it has accomplished while in power beyond just blaming Democrats for the nation’s problems.   In the longer term, changing demographics, with whites a minority by 2050, will likely mean a pendulum swing to center left.

In the meantime, we have an improving economy, an Affordable Health Care Act, and progress on the immigration front. We have an American political system that once again has weathered a nasty cycle of politics as usual, and that is no mean accomplishment.

(For more on politics as usual, see my 12/1/11 post “Politics: The Art of the Possible.”)

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