The Party of No

by Reihan Salam

Many have argued that congressional Republicans have played a uniquely counterproductive role in debates over the fiscal stimulus and health reform. Some writers and thinkers have gone so far as to describe House Republicans as “nihilistic.” In a lead editorialThe New Republic doesn’t go quite that far, but the editors do suggest that Republicans are operating outside the bounds of reasonable disagreement:

The Republican reception of Baucus’s bill doesn’t so much represent a crisis for health care reform as it does a crisis for our system. The GOP is no longer representing interest groups; rather, it has become an interest group itself–and an implacable one. So that a compromise piece of legislation that achieves a rough consensus among the various factions in the debate fails to get even one vote from one of the two major parties.

Where to go from here? Having failed to win over Republicans, Baucus should now labor to win over Democrats. If that means having Massachusetts appoint an interim replacement for Ted Kennedy’s seat–or even passing some of the reform through reconciliation–then so be it. If Max Baucus’s months of work achieved nothing else, he has unmasked the true nature of the contemporary GOP and, in the process, revealed just how broken our political system has become.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how structural aspects of our political system have made partisan competition sharper, a subject I intend to write about at greater length. But for now I’ll point you to an excellent essay by Michael Barone in The American, which I just came across today, on the respective congressional bases of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Heavily Republican districts are concentrated in the rural and suburban South. But a significant number of these rural South districts elected Democrats—not as many as did before the 1994 election, but more than during the period of House Republican majorities from 1994 to 2006. As a result, they do not produce as large a share of Republican leaders as the gentry liberal and black districts do for the Democrats. Neither do the suburban South districts—many newly created after the 1990 and 2000 censuses because of rapid population growth—whose members tend not to have great seniority. But such districts did produce earlier Republican leaders, including Speaker Newt Gingrich (first elected in 1978 when GA-6 was a rural South district) and Majority Leaders Dick Armey (TX-24) and Tom DeLay (TX-22). The current Republican leadership thus has reason to focus less on the political realities of heavily anti-Obama districts and more on districts that in the 2008 presidential election were more marginal. That tendency is probably increased by awareness of the party’s current minority status, which gives them an incentive to appeal to voters in districts not currently represented by Republicans.

These constituency realities may help to explain why the House Democratic leadership has supported a solidly liberal agenda and has concentrated on whipping enough members from marginal districts to produce majorities on the floor—the large majority on the stimulus package in February or the narrow majority on cap-and-trade in June. It may also help to explain why the Republican minority has not coalesced around any coherent opposition program, and has avoided taking stands that appeal primarily to the party’s current base.

Many have noted the hypocrisy of conservative Republicans defending Medicare. Given that the composition of the midterm electorate is heavily weighted towards over-65 voters and that President Obama’s health reform rhetoric initially centered on generating significant cost savings in the Medicare program to finance expanded coverage, this seems like a rational response to a political opportunity. Another way of looking at this is to say that Democrats, who have effectively used the notion that Republicans intend to “slash” Medicare to great political effect, most spectacularly in the late 1990s after the Gingrich Republicans attempted to slow the rate of growth in Medicare spending, in a sense unilaterally disarmed. Republicans, meanwhile, expanded the Medicare program during the Bush years, sensing in part that Medicare represented a serious vulnerability for them. Republicans could have chosen to ignore this unilateral disarmament n the part of the Democrats, just as McDonald’s could decide to refuse to sell french fries to the parents of young children. Past experience suggests, however, that if McDonald’s were to take such a stance on principle, Burger King would step in. 

So does this mean that democracy is in danger? Or are Republicans engaging in fairly familiar scorched-earth politics that reflects their minority status? The New Republic believes that the rejection of Baucuscare is particularly egregious, as it combines various ideas that had once been embraced by liberal and moderate Republicans.

In almost Solomonic fashion, Baucus crafted a bill that gives something to–and takes something away from–each faction. Virtually every industry group–from hospitals to drugmakers to device manufacturers to insurers–that faces new fees or budget cuts in the Baucus bill is rewarded with additional revenue from the legislation. And, when it came to winning over Republicans, Baucus went more than halfway: eliminating the public option, strengthening protections against federal funding of abortions, and lowering the legislation’s price tag.

At the same time, the Baucus bill tightly regulates benefit packages, the interstate compact concept does not allow for the robust competition among state regulators that conservatives had hoped to cultivate, the individual and employer mandates mean that the legislation’s supposed price tag masks stealth taxes on firms and families. 

In 2005, President Bush proposed revamping Social Security. The Bush White House made it clear that it was open to a variety of approaches that had at one point been championed by the center-left thinkers, including progressive price indexing and voluntary individual accounts. You’ll recall that this didn’t take off among Democratic lawmakers. Unified Democratic opposition to President Bush’s Social Security effort proved highly effective. And somehow democracy survived. So at the risk of speaking too soon, I think we can rest easy.    

Regular readers will know that I support the goal of universal coverage, and I think that congressional Republicans, with a few rare exceptions, haven’t done a very impressive job on this and other domestic issues. I am, however, sensitive to overwrought language, and to the constraints imposed by a competitive political environment. This is one reason why I favor fairly dramatic election reforms, ranging from adding at-large House districts to the most populous states, campaign finance reforms designed to strengthen challengers against incumbents, open and jungle primaries, among other things.  

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.