Archive for April, 2014
Jay Cost, prize student of the history of American political coalitions, writes (among other things), the following:
Facing the liberalism of today’s Democratic party, all factions of the GOP can usually agree on quite a lot. Virtually nobody in the coalition supports the Democrats’ efforts to increase taxes or federal regulations, especially when the beneficiaries are labor unions or the environmentalist left. Yet that unity can mask a historical irony: The rise of the modern left has pushed many of the country’s old political disagreements into the GOP. The skeptics of big government might once have been Democrats in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, but now they are joined with the heirs of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, who prefer to use the power of government to promote the private economy.
Considering how hot the conflict burned between these two forces when they were in different parties—the elections of 1800 and 1832 were particularly vitriolic—it is little wonder that today’s Republican establishment and its voting base can seem to hate each other more than they do the Democrats. Yet both sides must confront a stark reality: The American left is so strong today that neither half of the Republican party can do without the other.
The GOP has poached most of the conservative voters of the Democratic party. Those who remain committed to the liberal program are so numerous that the Democrats’ share of the vote is unlikely to fall below 45 percent, barring realignment. A united GOP, similarly, can count on about 45 percent support, meaning that politics today hinges on winning the support of that disengaged and unaffiliated middle 10 percent of the country.
Among those who would currently be identified in the “libertarian” wing of the party there are those who are, simply, advocating for their preferred view on these matters. But there are others, those who cry “RINO!” or “Ogre!” or complain about “voting for what you don’t want,” or talk blithely of how unimportant winning is. They tend to be either impatient or don’t do well with ambiguity. (This tendency isn’t limited to the libertarian wing, but I tend to see more of it from there. Bret Stephens’s recent column about Rand Paul is one example from the other side.)
There are others singing a siren song of purity, sometimes from outside the party, sometimes from inside. By focusing on disagreements, they would have others believe that Mitch McConnell has more in common with Barack Obama than with Ronald Reagan. (Come the fall of next year, they’ll be saying the same thing about Scott Walker.) Drawing sharp distinctions, using the old political sleight of hand that 99 is no better than 0, is useful if you’re drawing a line where more people are on your side than the other. Democrats do that, to keep the race-based portion of their coalition in line, by pretending that since personal color-blindness is impossible, the only alternative is to write race-obsession into law.
I don’t see much utility when it’s the difference between leading a party of 25% of the electorate and leading one of 45%. Of course, if you’re interested in “influencing” without the responsibility of governing, that might have some appeal; don’t count on too many people staying around more than a cycle for that party.
There are plenty of disagreements and frustrations within the Republican party. There are too many Republicans who aren’t willing to roll back the errors of the Left, and others who have compounded those errors with unforced errors of their own. But the main difference – between the grassroots and the establishment – goes back to the party’s origins. It’s reasonable to take the current Democrat party at its word, that it represents ideas meant to fundamentally transform America away from its founding ideas. As Cost writes, the internal debate within the Republican mirrors many of the historical divisions within the country as a whole.
Pretending that Henry Clay has more in common with Karl Marx than George Washington isn’t a route to being trusted with government.
Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton made a campaign appearance on behalf of
his wife the Clinton Global Initiative on the Jimmy Kimmel show. It was vintage Clinton, folksy charm on display even as he says the worst about his past, present, and future political opponents.
Kimmel: Do you think that this current climate, where the parties are so divided, and really have a difficult time working together on almost anything, is a temporary situation?
Clinton: I don’t know. But I think – here’s what I do believe. <pause> You know, I had a Republican Congress for six of the eight years I was president. And I had some of the same problems the president has.
One of the problems with young people, and with lower-income working people that have kids and trouble voting, is that they’ll show up in a president election, and if their candidate wins, they think that’s all they need to do. So then they don’t show up in midterms, when the Congress is elected – a third of the Senate in off-year elections, and all of the House of Representatives, and most of the governors, and state legislatures. So then they wonder why nothing happens.
So we have – the president and I – have talked about this a lot, about how the number one thing we gotta do is try to get voting up in the non-presidential years.
But I think it was easier for me to get cooperation in my second term, and remember, they were trying to run me out of town. And I just kept showing up every day like nothing had changed, and I just kept knocking on the door, and just kept trying to work with them, because that’s what people hire you to do, to get something done.
But it is – when you have economic adversity – and people are pessimistic and frustrated with their own circumstances, it is easier to polarize the voter. And I think you see that in other parts of the world too, that…
Like when the Arab Spring started in Tahrir Square in Cairo. All the young people that were in Tahrir Square were among the most impressive young people I’ve ever seen in my life. But the vast majority of people who live in Egypt live in rural areas, and were having a hard time keeping body and soul together, and the only organized political force there was the Muslim Brotherhood. So they won the election, and the young people never gave any thought to how they should form a political party, go out and campaign, have a program.
And that’s what happens in a lot of places. The young people Ukraine, in the square in Kiev, were immensely impressive, and they want a modern country that is not – despite what President Putin says – against Russia, but gets along with both Russia and Europe, and is a bridge between the two, which is what they want. But, the power brokers say no, you gotta be on our side or theirs.
That’s not what people want. But all these people, who have these feelings, who want to build modern, cooperative, prosperous societies have got to understand that no matter how distasteful they find politics, if you don’t play it, somebody will, and you will lose if you sit it out. And it always happens. You gotta suit up and play the game.
This is Clinton at his best/worst. He appears to blame situations rather than people, even as he then turns around and blames his opponents for creating the situations. And don’t be fooled by the dramatic pause and sigh at the beginning of his remarks. He knows exactly what he plans to say before he starts to say it, before he even walked out on stage.
The Republicans are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or both corrupt sides in Ukraine, manipulating the rubes who don’t know anything other than their own desperation. It’s a supremely patronizing view of the American people. And this, from a president of the party that has practiced unceasing class warfare and ethnic balkanization for well over a generation.
Remember, this is the president who blamed talk radio for the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton also hosted the gala retirement party for Julian Bond, who later famously referred to the Tea Party as the “Taliban wing of American politics,” so it’s fair to say he knows something about polarization and demonization.
He’s picked a couple of the most incendiary examples in recent world politics, which makes the comparison absurd. American political categories almost map onto British or Canadian ones, match up poorly with traditional European ones; they’re like fitting round pegs into watermelons for almost anything else. If he really wanted to make a political point, there are plenty of examples from American political history he could have drawn from.
Of course, it’s part of a pitch to get young people to vote this year, presumably pro-Obama, although recent polls have shown the bloom off that rose, especially among his youthful former supporters. Being forced to buy products they don’t want at prices they can’t afford will do that to people. Clinton will eventually say that it’s the mission of young people to vote, to rescue us from the curse of polarization.
Clinton has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and here he’s true to form. Young people and working class families with children “have a hard time voting,” when in fact, voting has never been easier. His timing here was off, although I suppose it’s not his fault that his appearance was scheduled for the day that North Carolina revealed that tens of thousands of its citizens had found it so easy to vote, they did so more than once. Egypt is not overwhelmingly rural; about 56% of its population lives in rural areas, although it’s true that that’s where the Muslim Brotherhood had been organizing for decades.
Perhaps the biggest whopper was one we’re going to hear a lot of, that Democrats lose mid-terms because young people don’t turn out. Moments before, he had been reminiscing about the Republican impeachment attempt of 1998. That was an off-year election, and Democrats picked up seats, in the 6th year of his presidency, and election that usually poisonous to the party in power. I guess his memory last night wasn’t any better than it was under oath.
While routine appearances by sitting presidents on late-night talk shows cheapen the office, appearances by former presidents serve to emphasize the Cincinnatus-like qualities of the office, since they appear as private citizens. They also show us, I think, that the presidency doesn’t usually change people, it just brings out their core personalities. And it’s often helpful to be reminded exactly what those personalities are.