Monday, January 7, 2013

Political Armistice, 1850 & 2013

Since the fiscal cliff ordeal was addressed by the American Taxpayers' Relief Act of 2012, conservative columnists have begun the unenviable work of salvaging John Boehner's reputation, a task that goes hand in hand with reestablishing Obama as the major impediment to real compromise. Two days after the bill's passage, Peggy Noonan took the first step with a column subtitled "Obama Doesn't Seem To Have It In Him To Make A Deal." (The actual title is too childish to deserve reference.) Noonan observes:
In the short term, Mr. Obama has won. The Republicans look bad. John Boehner looks bad, though to many in Washington he's a sympathetic figure because they know how much he wanted a historic agreement on the great issue of his time. Some say he would have been happy to crown his career with it, and if that meant losing a job, well, a short-term loss is worth a long-term crown. Mr. Obama couldn't even make a deal with a man like that, even when it would have made the president look good.
Stephen Moore followed up with an editorial patronizingly called "The Education of John Boehner," which essentially puts forth the same story as Noonan's—Obama refused to compromise, even after major Republican concessions—but with the focus on Boehner as the unjustly maligned, congenial good guy. Ross Douthat yesterday published his column, "Boehner, American Hero," which isn't quite so right-wing-fantasy-land as the WSJ but still serves the same purpose: to elevate Boehner's prestige. No Speaker, Douthat's argument goes, has faced the same political climate as Boehner and that America has survived these recurrent budget crises relatively unscathed is a measure of Boehner's skill. Writes Douthat:
There’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.
Douthat may be right on that score... for whatever reasons modern American history has not presented the nation with this kind of politically charged stalemate in the mechanisms of government. But, as I have written before, the history of the 1840s and 1850s does offer a precedent: sectional division over slavery that destroyed the Whig Party and, eventually, split the Democrats.

In an earlier post evaluating the fiscal cliff mini-deal, I referenced a column in The New Republic by John Judis, who argued that Obama won this legislative battle hands down and in the process exposed fissures in the Repubican ranks. Judis wrote:
These divisions don’t necessarily augur the kind of formal split that wrecked the Whig Party in the 1850s. Nor do they suggest widespread defection of Republicans into the Democratic Party as happened during the 1930s. There is still far too much distance between, say, McConnell and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. But they do suggest that a process of erosion is under way that will weaken the Republicans’ ability to maintain a united front against Democratic initiatives. 
That "these divisions don’t necessarily augur... [a] formal split" strikes me as an observation worth investigating, so let us consider the state of political compromise in 1850 compared with the state of compromise in 2013. It will be an imperfect analogy, of course, but it should provide some useful insight.

It is common knowledge, or close enough, that slavery divided antebellum America along sectional lines, and that deals like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 kept the 2nd American Party system—that is, the Whigs and Democrats, both of whom had northern and southern wings—running relatively smoothly. But events in the late 1840s transpired to unsettle the political calm. The Mexican Cession granted to American a swath of land where slavery's existence or prohibition would have to be settled. And the discovery of gold in California in 1849 prompted thousands of fortune-seekers to settle and demand statehood—free statehood since very few of the settlers were slaveowners—far sooner than anyone anticipated.

In other words, by early 1850 the American government was facing what might be called an "antislavery cliff." California was destined to enter the Union and it seemed hard to deny it would do so as a free state. That eventuality would give free states a numerical edge in the Senate, 16-15, and with an insurmountable northern advantage in population that kept the House of Representatives out of reach, slaveholders confronted a political crisis that they believed threatened their society.

Into the breach stepped Henry Clay—Senator from Kentucky, border state Whig, longtime broker of compromises, and in this particular instance the John Boehner of 1850—who offered five resolutions that together constituted what he believed was a palatable compromise, among them admission of California as a free state and a stricter fugitive slave law. Packaged together Clay's resolutions failed, but (at Clay's direction) Stephen Douglas, Democrat from Illinois, separated them into separate components and maneuvered them through Congress in spite of stiff opposition from North and South.

Textbook history usually offers plaudits for Clay, the Great Compromiser who put nation before party or section. If he did not pilot the Compromise in its final stretch into law, he was its principal author and negotiator. Many historians, however, have challenged this view. In his mammoth two-volume work, The Road To Disunion, William Freehling argues:
Two myths dominate histories of the Compromise of 1850. The North-South clash supposedly defined the antagonism. Henry Clay supposedly directed the reconciliation.

The Kentucky Whig instead provoked a controversy as important as the one between warring sections: a bitter clash within the South. Deep South senators demanded and secured critical revisions of Henry Clay's Border South design for sectional adjustment. Especially after slaveholders had made Clay's proposals less northern, the Southern Whig's bills could not have carried the majority section, unless Northern Democrats overcame Northern Whigs' opposition—and perhaps unless President Zachary Taylor, Clay's most threatening Whig rival, died. 
Freehling's contention, that Clay's introduction of a "grand bargain" exacerbated the crisis of the Union by exposing fault lines within the South and within the weakening Whig Party, stems from the record of legislative infighting over the compromise resolutions and the votes themselves. Like Boehner's misadventures with his own Republican caucus in the fiscal cliff fight, Clay did not have the authority or the influence over the larger and more radical wing of his party. Clay was a slaveholding Southern Whig trying to appease a much larger contingent of staunchly antislavery Northern Whigs; Boehner is a Northern Republican trying to appease a radical mostly Southern contingent of Tea Party Republicans. Both Clay and Boehner wanted a grand bargain. Clay moved to appease Southern Democrats, losing him northern Whigs. Boehner moved to appease Democrats and lost the Tea Party (if he ever had them). Both failed.

Instead, smaller deals were struck when different political players took control of negotiations: Stephen Douglas in 1850; Joe Biden & Mitch McConnell in 2013. But their legislative "success" did not undo the damage wrought by the earlier fumblings of Clay or Boehner. Here's how the final votes compare:

John Judis reports on the fiscal cliff vote:
There is a regional division in the party between the deep South, which contains many of the diehard House Republicans, and the Republicans from the Northeast, industrial Midwest, and the Far West. In the House vote on the fiscal cliff, Republican House members from the deep South opposed it by 83 to 10, while Republicans from the Northeast favored it by 24 to one, and those from the Far West by 17 to eight. 
Freehling writes on the Compromise of 1850 vote:
The key test of whether the American middle would hold against these sectional extremes came on a so-called Little Omnibus Bill.... Upper South Democrats voted 2:1 and Northern Democrats 3:1 yes on the package. Northern Whigs voted 2:1 and Deep South Democrats 3:1 no. Only Southern Whigs could offset the Deep South Democrat/Northern Whig negation and thus save the Little Omnibus and the ultimate national settlement. Southern Whigs went for the Little Omnibus 24-1, allowing it to squeak through, 108-97. That vote paved the way for the revised version of Clay's proposals to slide through the House and into the statute books.
And the implications, as Freehling writes, were tremendous going forward (the emphasis is mine):
The saviors of the Little Omnibus were the largest potential losers from the compromise. Southern Whigs secured a national settlement based on a new fugitive slave law.... Northern Whigs scorned that goal. Northern Democrats helped gain it. Southern Whigs' best allies were in the other party. That was a demoralizing burden to carry into the next southern two-party campaign.
Surely the concerns that Southern Whigs had in the wake of 1850 are not dissimilar to the concerns moderate Republicans in 2013 (i.e. those that voted for fiscal cliff deal). What saved the nation in the latter case, if that is what happened, was their joining with the Democratic House to pass the legislation, 257-167. Those 85 Republicans who voted aye face the same "demoralizing burden," that in their next campaign their worst enemies come from their own party. In the meantime, northeastern Republicans were outraged that federal funds for Hurricane Sandy relief, already delayed by Boehner, were then passed unanimously by Democrats but suffered 67 no votes by Republicans. (The WSJ again defended Boehner.)

Historian David Potter in The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, called the Compromise of 1850 an "armistice." Freehling agrees:
"Compromise" or "Armistice" or "Sellout," call this settlement what you will, it everywhere failed to defuse explosive questions.
Can we say any different for the Fiscal Cliff compromise? The WSJ can delude themselves that Obama is the major obstacle of reform, but amazingly neither Noonan's op-ed or Moore's editorial mentions that Boehner failed to pass his own Republican-friendly "Plan-B." Like Clay, he never had the votes for a grand bargain, regardless of Obama's position. In pretending like he did, willfully or ignorantly, Boehner has badly damaged hopes for a more moderate and effective Republican future. Ross Douthat ends his own editorial with this:
And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.
I'm not convinced. If the comparison with 1850 shows us anything, it is that staving off crisis does not necessarily lessen the severity of that crisis, and that searching for compromise can sometimes do more harm than good. It is unclear whether Boehner has done anything to improve the fortunes of Republicans. More than likely he has made things much worse. He should have resigned... not to "transform the Republican Party for the better," but to bring it one step closer to its day of reckoning.

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