Sunday, February 10, 2013

Fearless Lemmings

A midwinter lull here at The Union Marches as the grip of winter and student papers have slowed my productivity—apologies all around. But I have returned, driven not only by the compulsion to blog, but by the current precarious state of political negotiations between left and right. Living north of Boston, I sat staring out the window yesterday morning at the mountain of snow brought by winter storm Nemo (incidentally not named after the fish, but with origins even dorkier)... one cannot gaze into an abyss of descending white flakes for very long without wondering what the Republican Party is up to.

A confluence of events has created what might be called a storm surge of Washington politics: the election, Sandy Hook, the fiscal cliff, the sequestration, the inauguration, and the coming State of the Union address. With all that going on it is easy, at least for me, to get caught up in the day-by-day or week-by-week news cycles while losing sight of the tidal movements in party politics. In an attempt to remove the blinders, I revisited a pre-election interview with New York's Frank Rich in Salon about the reaction of the right wing to an Obama victory. (I linked to it in this blog's first post.) Rich argued that he saw no hope that the Republican Party would come to its senses, that the "fever [would] break," even if drubbed at the polls. When asked if any result would convince the Republican Party to change course from its relentless death march into right-wing oblivion, Rich replied "Who would represent it? Who are the people in that party to be that tempered voice?" He went on to predict how post-election Republican policy tactics would work:
Romney is already trying to put it on the down low, and took out an ad where the woman is saying, “He is pro-choice because it’s OK to have an abortion is cases of rape and incest and the life of the mother!” That shows that they know that they have to polish up that turd.

They’ll do it on gay issues, too. And my guess is, with Latinos, they will find a Rubio or someone like him — though their ideal candidate would be a Mexican-American and not Cuban-American — to move on that. And the truth is, their financial base wants immigration reform. Because it’s big business and it’s corporate America and they want immigration reform. So, if they can get themselves back toward 40 percent of the Latino vote — it’s not happening this year, may not happen two years from now, but could happen four to eight years from now. So that, in my mind, allows one to argue — doesn’t mean it’ll happen — that there is a way that they can outrun the demographic issue.
How does Rich's prophecy line up with the current debates? One way of judging, perhaps the only way of judging, is to measure the responses of House Republicans, who are the de facto gatekeepers to any legislative reform. Let's take a look at two issues currently in play:

Gun Violence:
For reasons not clear to me (although they bear more thought), it seems that the memory of the Newtown gun massacre at Sandy Hook has embedded itself in the American consciousness in a way that previous shootings have not. Democrats might imagine that spells promise, finally, for federal regulation of guns. Molly Ball makes the case that legislation is possible because of the left's shift in the last fifteen years to demand smart regulation rather than threatening to ban guns. Indeed, Senator Dianne Feinstein's reintroduction of the assault weapons' ban, defunct since it expired in 2004, has already been given last rites by pundits like Dave Weigel. Its demise might be worthwhile if it can be traded for other (perhaps more effective) action on gun regulation. Democrats, meanwhile, have been making all the fawning political overtures to the win the middle ground in this debate, from issuing a photo of Obama skeet shooting to proclaiming their deep love of the Second Amendment.

Yet House Republicans may yet obstruct all action on guns. In the House the assault weapons ban is all but dead on arrival, but even far less controversial measures have not been greenlighted for floor debate, much less a vote or passage. Greg Sargent, wondering in his post title if "Will House GOP really line up against law enforcement on guns?" noted that on two policies with the most bipartisan support there are no signs of life:
The House GOP leadership has not said whether it will allow votes on either the trafficking or background check proposals. So it needs to be reiterated that these are both no-brainers that don’t infringe on the rights of the law abiding and are supported by law enforcement. 
The NRA, at the moment, seems to be weathering the storm behind its levee of House Republicans. In the meantime, the death toll from guns rises everyday. Joe Nocera keeps track of incidents at "The Gun Report" and Slate has calculated with @GunDeaths that at least 1686 people have died from guns since Newtown as of Thursday.

Immigration:
The two ringleaders in the Republican effort to win Latino voters (therefore avoiding demographic electoral annihilation) are Marco Rubio in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, both staunch conservatives and both contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination. Rubio has put forward an immigration plan that looks a whole lot like Bush's 2007 reform proposal, which Ryan then endorsed. The opportunism is clear: immigration reform may be politically risky, but it may also be crucial to winning more Hispanic votes. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Rubio about it, producing this exchange:
Is immigration reform a magic bullet for the GOP's troubles with Hispanic voters?

"No," Mr. Rubio says, but "the immigration issue is a gateway issue for Hispanics, no doubt about it. No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don't like them or want them here, it's difficult to get them to listen to anything else."
Jonathan Chait for at New York has argued that immigration is the area that Republicans will moderate their stance while they remain intractably right-wing on every other policy. The WSJ editorial board warmed to reform as well, since they too can read exit polls.

Other Republicans are not playing ball, though. The National Review's editor, Rich Lowry, has already maligned Rubio's plan as amnesty for illegal immigrants. At the end of January, Ezra Klein at the Post's "Wonkblog" published a guide to the Senate immigration reform plan that included optimistic subheadings like "The proposal is gaining support from a broad swath of Congress" and "It could pass in just a few months" before coming back to earth with "Boehner isn't a 'yes' yet" and "Immigration reform is likely to be a tough sell in the House." If that reality wasn't deflating, a few days later Eric Cantor, Republican equivalent to the Mouth of Sauron, signaled he wasn't on board with Rubio's plan. The same day, Greg Sargent wrote that House Republicans were perfectly capable of scuttling reform and had no incentive not to.
The problem is that many individual House Republicans don’t have incentives to back immigration reform, even if opposing it is bad for the GOP overall. Well over half of House Republicans represent districts that are over 80 percent white, and over 200 of them represent districts that backed Mitt Romney (who staked out a hard right “self deportation” position). What’s more, the average GOP district is only 11.5 percent Hispanic; by contrast, the average Dem district is twice that.
.......

So the diagnosis is in and the news is not good. As of now it seems that Frank Rich was right, or perhaps he even undersold just how little change Republicans would tolerate in spite of the 2012 defeats. Other pundits have reached similar conclusions. Ezra Klein, even while acknowledging some signs of change within Republican ranks, had this to say:
The Republican Party isn’t reinventing itself so much as reverting to its previous form. There’s little evidence of a rethinking of core Republican policy ideas. There’s no obvious analogue to the Democratic Leadership Council of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was a moderating influence on the Democrats, or even to the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted to the nation in 2000.
The consequences of such rigidity are easy and disappointing to see in terms of policy: we can anticipate more needless gun violence because of the rabid, ill-conceived defense of the Second Amendment as well as the continued alienation of immigrants, legal and illegal, because of deeply racialized Republican politics. We should not ignore the consequences for the national Republican Party either. Talking Points Memo has suggested that continued Republican alignment with the NRA will alienate women voters, even in the 2014 midterms. Rejecting immigration reform would certainly not help Republicans win Hispanic votes either, and Ross Douthat claims that entertaining notions of winning those votes by embracing reform is fantasy.

In terms of electoral politics, and therefore legislative policy, Republicans have nowhere else to go. So they defiantly march on toward the cliff. Sam Tanenhaus for The New Republic argues as much in his essay on the historical roots of white men and the Republican Party. He, rightly, traces the story from the politics of slaveholding and nullification espoused by John C. Calhoun through the "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon to the current Republican dilemma:
A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP's dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its "middle-aged white guys." They now form the party's one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country's developing ideas of democracy and governance.
Can we point to anyone within the elite Republican ranks who offers relief? I don't believe so. Chris Christie is not the answer to a problem like this. The party needs to spend ten years in the wilderness.

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