How Not to Govern in America

Yes, John, I’m still the president. No, John, I won’t sign a bill repealing all of the Democratic Party’s achievements. (Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
John Boehner’s decision to resign as Speaker later next month can help explain why the Republican Party in its current state is incapable of governing. As Jonathan Chait points out, Boehner resigned/was ousted because of extremely unrealistic expectations that he would, or could, force Obama to cave to conservative demands.

The story here is quite simple. Obama won a decisive election in 2008 and enjoyed unified Democratic control of Congress when sworn in as President in January 2009. Obama and Democrats in the Senate and the House managed to pass several important laws, including the momentous Affordable Care Act, without any meaningful cooperation from the Republican minority. The Republican minority managed to stifle several other important bills by abusing the filibuster.

The midterm election of 2010 featured a much whiter and older electorate than that of 2008, and Republicans managed to take over the House. The 2010 election ushered in the era in which we currently live, where no meaningful legislation gets passed, and Republicans repeatedly threaten to shut down the government over whatever is their pet issue of the day.

What’s the point here? Republicans accept election results when they win, and ignore them when they lose. They refuse to compromise in any way whether they’ve won or lost an election. If they’ve won, they insist that their opponents accede to all of their demands. If they’ve lost, they refuse to negotiate, then whine like hell when Democrats actually manage to pass something without their help. This is no way to approach governance, especially in a country with our particular system of government.

The modern Republican Party, or at least its conservative base, does not seem to understand the structure of the American political system. There is a deliberate separation of powers when it comes to lawmaking. No bill becomes law without being passed by both houses of Congress and without receiving the president’s signature, unless, of course, both houses of Congress pass the law and can override the president’s veto with two-thirds majorities in both houses. So, a party that refuses to compromise with the other but wants to enact laws must either a) hold majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency, or b) hold two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress that are willing to override a president’s veto. There is no other way to enact laws in our system of government other than the two just mentioned.

At no point since Obama’s inauguration in 2009 has the Republican Party met either condition. Yet its members refuse to compromise. This is why Boehner repeatedly had to go to House Democrats, hat in hand, begging for the votes needed to pass routine spending legislation. Boehner, because he’s human, is tired of these repeated humiliations.

Well, what’s so crazy about a party winning a significant congressional majority in an election and then demanding a say in legislation? Nothing’s wrong with that, as long as the party is willing to compromise. Here’s what has happened instead.

The 2010 election-winning Republicans triumphantly declared themselves to have a mandate, because the people had spoken, and they claimed the people had said loudly and clearly that they wanted the Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA or Obamacare) repealed and the deficit reduced via spending cuts. Regarding the ACA, obviously, this was a maximal position. Republicans didn’t want to tweak the ACA, and they didn’t want to repeal it and replace it with a different version. They wanted to repeal it, period.

Imagine you are the president and your name is Obama and you are presented with a bill that repeals the law that has become known as Obamacare and you believe that this bill has helped a lot of people (full disclosure: my wife and I now have health insurance thanks to Obamacare). Would you ask, “Where do I sign?” Of course not. And to make matters worse, Democrats still controlled the Senate, and they sure as hell were not going to pass a bill repealing Obamacare.

The 2011 budget negotiations aimed at reducing the deficit is an even better example of Republican intransigence. Boehner had negotiated with Obama a budget leaning heavily on spending cuts to cherished Democratic programs. Obama insisted on including some measures that would raise revenue. Obama knew he couldn’t get the Senate, still under Democratic control, to pass this budget without at least some new revenue. But Republican hardliners refused to accept even this small compromise to their anti-tax agenda, essentially telling Obama that he would either have to accept the Republican budget agenda in its entirety (and in this fantasy land scenario somehow the Senate would accept this as well) or nothing would pass.

Obama said no thanks, and Boehner had to pass a very different budget with the help of Democratic votes. To be fair, this budget was still terrible from a Democrat’s point of view (as evidenced by only half of Democratic House members being willing to vote for it). In the end, though, conservative Republicans’ refusal to compromise backfired and robbed them of their one real opportunity to get a Democratic president to cover their asses and sign a bill cutting spending from Social Security and other important programs.

Now, back to the idea of a mandate. The Republicans did indeed win a landslide election in 2010 and took over the House. This was all the evidence they needed to claim the American people had spoken and that the Republican Party’s agenda should be adopted in its entirety. Again, though, imagine you were Obama or a Senate Democrat. Wait a minute, you would’ve thought, I’m still president and my party still controls the Senate. And wait another minute. Sure, Republicans just scored an impressive victory, but the America that came out to vote in 2010 looked a lot different from the one that swept us to power in 2008. (This is a long-standing phenomenon in which presidential election year electorates skew younger and towards more minority participation, while off presidential election years skew whiter and older). So if you were Obama or a Senate Democrat at this time, you would’ve been wondering why, exactly, you need to dismantle your own programs.

Of course, Obama won reelection overwhelmingly in 2012, giving the lie to Republican mandate claims. Actually, mandate claims by either party are always nonsense. Obama could’ve won every single state in 2012, claimed a mandate, and then still he would’ve confronted a Republican-controlled House with no intentions whatsoever of cooperating on his agenda.

This is why the Republican Party needs to change, or go the way of the Whigs. It is no longer a party interested in governing. Governing in the American political system means making compromises. Today’s Republican Party thinks compromise means “give us everything we want and you get nothing or we will shut down the government.” That’s not compromise. That’s this.

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