Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reports Of The GOP's Demise ...

The idea of the Republican Party, what it stands for and what it hopes to accomplish, is grist for the pundit mill these days. In the span of 3 weeks, TIME Magazine had two potential heirs to the GOP throne on its cover - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. On a recent episode of "Up With Chris," a panel discussed whether the GOP was even worth saving. The RNC has commenced an after action study on the 2012 election and a recent cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine asked "Can the GOP be saved from obsolescence?" Implicit in these stories and commentary is the idea that the GOP must soul search, recognize it is losing the demographic battle for the future of the country, soften its stand on issues like gay marriage and abortion and stop being seen as the party out to protect the wealthy if it has any interest in again governing the country.  

But this analysis is asking the wrong question because it presumes that the GOP, at least in its current iteration, thinks it is losing. I submit that, rhetoric about not being the "stupid party" notwithstanding, the GOP is perfectly happy with its position at both the federal and state level.  The dirty little secret of politics is that the Age of Obama has been very good for the Republican Party, largely tied to their landslide win in the 2010 election, a victory which is anomalous in recent cycles, but whose importance grows with each passing day. 

Consider politics in Washington after 2010. The GOP took control of the House of Representatives and broke the Democrats' brief run of filibuster-proof power in the Senate. Since then, Republicans have mastered the art of economic terrorism, extracting compromises from Obama at every point in the budget and debt ceiling process. The result? Domestic spending is at its lowest level since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the mainstream media has completely bought into the idea that substantial cuts in entitlements spending must be made to shore up our long-term finances (never mind the fact that much of our economic stress was caused by policies these same Republicans supported when George W. Bush was President), and even the President has floated offers to reduce Social Security payments (Chained CPI) and flirted with the idea of raising the eligibility age for Medicare (reported as part of the 2011 debt ceiling negotiation). 

And while they are advancing their agenda of smaller government in real and actual ways under Obama that never happened under Bush, Republicans are also fighting successful rear guard actions. The punditocracy has made great hay over the fact that Republicans voted for tax increases at the beginning of this year, but even that deal set threshold rates for the highest tax bracket above what they were when Bill Clinton was President and maintained a still low dividend and interest rate for the very wealthy. Meanwhile, the reduction in the payroll tax rate was allowed to expire, resulting in a tax "increase" for tens of millions of middle and lower-middle class Americans. In short, the higher tax rate pinch is felt by fewer people at a higher level of the income ladder who can easily afford it while the payroll tax cut expiration eats into the paychecks of everyday Americans struggling to get by. 

Over in the Senate, the 60 vote threshold to move any piece of legislation or nomination has become normative behavior because Democrats refused to tighten filibuster rules, emboldening Republicans to take the unprecedented (literally, had never happened in our more than 235 year history) step of blocking a vote on President Obama's nominee to lead the Defense Department. Meanwhile, grandstanding on Benghazi, which has become a sort of Rorschach of GOP paranoia, continues unabated, and newly minted "Tea Party" Senator Ted Cruz has maligned the character and service of now-Secretary of State John Kerry and presumptive Pentagon head Chuck Hagel. The selection of Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary has languished even as that critical Department has been without an appointed leader for almost a month and nominations to the federal bench still move at a glacial pace. And for this obstruction, not only do Senate Republicans pay no price, they are well positioned to gain seats in 2014.  

And as we look forward at the national level, in less than a week, Republicans will accomplish, through the strenuous effort of doing nothing, yet another massive contraction of discretionary domestic spending through the sequester. While some point to the cuts that will also take place in defense spending, they must be viewed in a much different context than the other domestic spending cuts. The Pentagon's budget has risen by roughly 50% since 2001; the sequester will trim about 7% annually from its current level, which is sort of like losing a pound after you've been declared morbidly obese. Unsurprisingly, the other programs that will see a similar cut have not had that level of growth over the past decade. Indeed, the funding levels of most programs that will be hit by the sequester have barely kept up with the rate of inflation, making those reductions far more painful than that the drop in the bucket at the Pentagon. 

The view from the state level is even more favorable for the GOP. Those 2010 landslides not only handed many Governor's mansions to the GOP, but control over both houses of state Legislatures. A consolidation of power that has been put to devastating effect on issues as disparate as "right to work," laws and regulations that have essentially outlawed abortion in states like Kansas, South Dakota and Mississippi, and restricted access to the voting booth through the passage of a range of laws related to voter identification, early voting hours and voter registration. As these laws and regulations were passed, they faded quickly from the national spotlight, but their impact in the states where they were enacted will be felt for years to come - in Michigan, the fact that union rights have largely been voided is beyond any right wing fanatic's fondest dream and a collective shrug was given by national reporters, newspapers and news programs after it was found that more than 200,000 people were dissuaded from voting in Florida because of restrictive policies put in place by the majority Republicans. 

While the Republican Party is not setting itself up to lead at the national level, it does not need to, and indeed, may not be inclined to do so. They are getting so much of what they want by mindless obstruction. In the states, a brash, in-your-face attitude is re-writing policy in profound ways that will be difficult to undo, particularly in southern states where it is the Democrats that are flirting with extinction. To paraphrase Twain, reports of the GOP's demise have been greatly exaggerated. 

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