The State of the GOP
There is much to critique in Washington, but the nexus of the governance problem at the moment is the GOP.
While we are focused, understandably, on the presidential contest, and its latest twist, Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate, the real story in terms of US governance remains the dysfunction in Congress, where it seems that actually governing is not the priority.
First, while still on the topic of the presidential race, I was struck by a statement by Samuel Popkin, a distinguished political scientist at UCSD. In an e-mail to James Fallows at the Atlantic, Popkin notes in commenting on the current presidential contest:
Whenever you hear politicians say the problem is the candidate, that it’s not about the party, you can be sure it is about the party.
Not only have we already heard some rumblings within some GOP circles about Romney (as well as some this weekend that I have seen in passing, about whether the party would be better off with Ryan on the top of the ticket), but if President Obama is re-elected in November* then this line of reasoning will come to dominate the Republican Party. What I expect to see is the “if we had only nominated a real conservative, we would have won” argument (which will be untrue, but could have serious consequences for the party in 2016).
However, along the lines of Popkin’s statement, the problem isn’t the candidate, its the party. As Popkin’s UCSD colleague, and my collaborator on an ongoing project, Matthew Shugart, would readily point out: the structure and behavior of parties in presidential systems are heavily influenced by the fact that the main electoral prize is the presidency. As such, critiques of candidate selection are not just about the specific candidate, but do redound to the party writ large. In other words: one cannot so easily disaggregate presidential candidates from their parties.
To summarize the summary: the GOP has a serious structural problem and it is not going to be solved by selecting a better presidential candidate. The issues is far more about governing, or the lack of vision thereof, than it is simply one of candidate selection.
All of this is to point to the broader problem of party behavior in the Congress, and therefore to an interview with Mike Lofgren about his book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. It is worth nothing that Lofgren is yet another example of a lifelong Republican with conservative credentials who is not only criticizing his party, but assigning the lion’s share of blame to the GOP. From the interview, and in response to a question over why he wrote the book:
First, let me dispel one potential canard: I am not a “disgruntled former employee.” I enjoyed my day job, which was federal budgeting. And I revered the Founders’ idea of Congress, which is the first institution of government outlined in the Constitution.
But I had become alarmed that my party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, had ceased to believe in the proper governance of the world’s greatest economic and military power. The party preferred gridlock and discrediting the institutions of government in a perpetual campaign of fake populism.
The GOP’s ransoming the nation’s sovereign credit rating in order to ram through their political agenda was the final straw that made me write the book. Even Ronald Reagan, the present-day Republican icon, had pleaded with Congress in the 1980s to give him a debt limit extension bill without extraneous provisions or gimmicks. The GOP has now become a rigid, ideological cult rather than a traditional, broad-based political party.
The bolded portion is key and underscore the main problem of the GOP: the notion that it is a good idea to discredit the government instead of finding ways to make it work better. The reason this is so important is that we need government and are going to have government and therefore the debate should be about how to govern, not faux outrage over government itself.
Along those lines:
A lot of politicians don’t want substantive solutions, they want partisan issues.
Example: my former boss, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a reasonable guy who actually wanted real solutions to our fiscal problems, co-authored a bill with Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to create a panel to propose long-term deficit reduction.
The panel’s recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Everybody liked the idea in the abstract, so it gained many Senate co-sponsorships.
Yet when the Obama administration signaled its support, several Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, suddenly withdrew their support. When the bill came to a vote in the Senate to override McConnell’s filibuster, it failed by a small margin.
In other words, it was a good idea until the president of the United States got on board. This is the kind of petty childishness that makes our Congress a laughing stock.
This is not governance, this is simply partisan nonsense. It also underscores that much of our dysfunction is linked to minority control of the legislative process due to Senate rules.
It is worth noting that Lofgren has criticisms of the Democratic Party as well, but he does not engage in false equivalency:
I have already called the Democrats enablers, and this is what they are because of their need to cater to corporate donors. It is also a result of their own pusillanimity. But at least they take a stab at governing.
The GOP is all into tearing down the institutions of government (or auctioning them off to corporate contributors – remember Halliburton? The U.S. Army can’t even feed itself anymore, even though its logistics budget is going through the roof).
The Democrats are distinctly sub-mediocre, but they can’t match the kind of lunacy you see from [lawmakers like] a Louie Gohmert, or a Michele Bachmann, or an Allen West, or a Joe Walsh in the GOP. And, no, they are not powerless back-benchers; their faction determines the circumstances under which House majority leader Eric Cantor undercuts the Speaker of the House.
It is worth underscoring that Lofgren is one of a long line of persons with substantial conservative/Republican cred who have made these arguments. Another book that makes a similar argument is Mann and Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (which I am reading, but have not finished). Off the top of my head, I can also note persons such Bruce Bartlett and David Frum who fit this general category (there are more, but none are springing to mind at the moment).
In short: slogans, gimmicks, and ideology are insufficient for governing. Compromise and politically viable solutions are required. And while both parties deserve criticism (and yes, I would be more than happy to see more parties in the mix, but that isn’t going to happen any time soon, so we have to work within the existing duopoly), the evidence strongly suggests that the party least interested in governing the GOP, and I am not the only one to say so. Further, it has to matter that many who are saying so (myself included, to be honest**) once thought of themselves as sympathetic to, if not part of, the the conservative sector of American politics.
*My ongoing critique of the electoral college behooves me to point out that, actually, the president will be elected/re-elected in January when the electoral votes are read in Congress as a reminded that, constitutionally speaking, the vote in November isn’t the election.
**For those interested in such things, I would note that I do not consider myself “conservative” in the contemporary sense (and it was a term I often had problems with anyway, because of tensions between classical and contemporary meanings) and nor do I consider myself to have a specific partisan affiliation. I will say that along with a serious of philosophical and policy preference, some of which continue to evolve, I am fundamentally interested in the the very real need to govern this country.