Monday, October 21, 2013

Distrust, minority tactics plague Washington

The level of distrust in Washington has sunk below the level between the United States and the Soviet Union during the deepest crisis of the Cold War.

In 1962, the United States detected missiles from Communist Russia being shipped to Cuba.  Work had begun on readying missiles to reach many American targets.

President John F. Kennedy prepared an American response if the Soviets did not turn their ships around and take the missiles back to Russia.  The world was at the edge of war.

The Soviets were willing to back away in the face the threatened American action.  But, in return, they wanted the United States to remove its missiles from Turkey, right on the border of the Soviet Union.  Kennedy seemed to refuse.

History has shown the Soviet Union was quietly promised that American missiles would be withdrawn in a few months, so that the United States would not be seen to have taken the action in connection with the Cuban missile crisis.

The Soviets took the Kennedy diplomats at their word and withdrew their missile operations from Cuba.  Their trust was rewarded when, several months later, the U.S. missiles were pulled out of Turkey.

Now, look at the dispute in Washington that led to the government shutdown and the threat of default on U.S. debt payments.

House Republicans blocked votes on funding government and raising the debt ceiling unless they got concessions on defunding Obamacare and making other spending cuts.

President Obama said that he would not accept demands backed by holding the government hostage.  As the crisis continued, he said that he was willing to negotiate on the matters raised by the Republicans only after they stopped blocking government funding and raising the debt limit.

The House GOP would have to trust that Obama would keep his word, promised publicly, and back off their action to end the government crisis, as the American public overwhelmingly wanted.

But they refused to extend to the president the same degree of trust that the Soviets had been willing to give the United States.

It would not be too far a stretch to say that the danger to the constitutional order in the United States of this year’s conflict was as serious as the danger to the world of the Cuban missile crisis.

Obama’s stance was meant to defend a widely held view of the Constitution as much as to protect his health plan or spending priorities.  The issue is about the rights of a minority in the American system.

Some conservatives say that, because the United States is a republic, the rule of the majority is not required, and the minority must have virtually as much influence.  Only in a direct democracy, like a Maine town meeting, does a majority rule.

The United States is a republic and that means that government is run by people elected directly to serve the public good.  It does not mean that majority rule can be ignored.

The Constitution is clear that decisions are made by a simple majority, except in a handful of specific matters. It did not require that all decisions had to be made jointly by the majority and minority.

While ideally the two sides should negotiate and arrive at a common agreement on major issues, the minority should not be able to block any action with which it disagrees.  Obama said he was willing to negotiate, but would not make up-front concessions on key Obamacare provisions.

That’s why the president rejected the offer by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who wanted concessions on Obamacare from the White House to allow government to re-open.

If the president let the minority dictate to the majority, it would promote stalemate and possibly damage the ability of future governments to make decisions as foreseen by the Constitution.  What would be the point of elections for president and Congress?

Obama deserves credit for defending the Constitution, because he refused to use it for his own purposes in the debt limit conflict.

The Fourteenth Amendment says: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, ... shall not be questioned.”  Some scholars say that provision was meant to prevent to Congress from reneging on already authorized borrowing.

Obama declined this advice and accepted that Congress can vote a debt limit that would apply to future borrowing, though it should not cause a default on existing debt.
In the end, what matters most is not Obamacare or the level of government spending.  What matters most is protecting the Constitution and that means majority rule.

Moderate voters have nowhere to go

More American voters consider themselves politically moderate than either conservative or liberal.

So, why is our political system so deeply polarized between conservatives and liberals?   

Why don’t politicians cater to the middle of the spectrum?

One answer may be that our entire political debate has slid to the right.  With the exception of the hot-button, social issues, today’s liberals are a shadow of what it once meant to be a liberal.

Traditional liberals would be fighting for more programs to aid the disadvantaged, less military spending, tougher controls on financial institutions, and stronger protection of civil liberties.

Now, the Democrats, often considered the more liberal party for its historic support of positions like these, is reduced to fighting a rear-guard action to defend programs going back 50 or 70 years, like food stamps or Social Security.

That shift applies as much to so-called liberals on the Supreme Court as it does to Congress.

In short, most of today’s liberals look like yesterday’s moderates.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have moved to the right.  The tea party movement has the support of about a fifth of the electorate, enough for its activists to take control of the party and push aside traditional, moderate GOP leaders.

These newly active Republicans control the party apparatus so well that they condemn moderates who were party leaders long before them as RINOs – Republicans in name only.

Neo-Republicans have polarized political choice to the point that many would-be moderate voters may not find leaders to support.  Without a moderate alternative, they have no choice but to line up with one side or the other.

A recent independent national survey found that, when considering GOP efforts to block Obamacare, moderates oppose Republican hard-core tactics by more than 2-1.

In the battle for the moderate vote, the Democrats count on this split, while the Republican right seeks to convince the GOP that, because about half of all voters don’t like Obamacare, any tactic to oppose it will pick up some moderate voters.

In the struggle over Obamacare and the national budget, the small band of House Republicans who oppose the health program but also reject a government shutdown could be the core of a moderate political force. 

They offer a sign of principle over pure politics. Whether it is a political turning point remains to be seen.

Perhaps the notion of conservative-moderate-liberal is only relative, despite the right side of the GOP promoting ideological purity.

Maine may provide a good illustration of how ideology mixes with pure politics.

In 2010 governor’s race, Republican Paul LePage was the obvious conservative, Democrat Libby Mitchell ran as a liberal traditionalist, and independent Eliot Cutler offered a pragmatic alternative to both, especially LePage.  Thanks to the split in his opposition, LePage won.

In 2014, LePage will seek re-election. The Democrats will offer Mike Michaud, the second district congressman and member of the party’s moderate “Blue Dog” group.

Cutler, running again, is unlikely to profit from a weak major party candidate in the field, as he did in 2010.  As a result, he might end up as a liberal, attempting show that Michaud, the moderate, is too conservative for Democrats.

Cutler would move from moderate to liberal.  His problem may be that Michaud has a mostly progressive record, yet conservative enough to please all but hard-core LePage voters.

In the Senate race, GOP incumbent Susan Collins can legitimately claim to be a rare congressional moderate.  Her voting record produces a moderate rating and could make her hard to beat. 
Democrats might believe that Collins is vulnerable because she is not liberal enough for today’s voters. Shenna Bellows, the former executive director of the Maine ACLU and newly announced
candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, may be betting on it. That presumption could be a mistake in a state where unenrolled voters outnumber Democrats or Republicans and may
see Collins as their choice.

Conservative Republicans may dislike or even challenge Collins, but her problem could be more that she is a good Republican than because she is a moderate.  She shows remarkable loyalty to the GOP, even after its Senate leader killed her transportation bill, partly because it had bipartisan backing.

Trying to appear moderate by proposing a back-down by the Democrats on a couple of 
Obamacare provisions before her party agreed to end the government shutdown, she merely repackaged the position of House GOP hard-core conservatives.

Being a moderate may be ineffective in Washington, as shown by Collins’ need to support the GOP conservative position in the shutdown showdown.

There now seems to be little chance of a moderates gaining power in Washington.  That would take Collins and other Republicans being willing to buck their more conservative party mates.

“Blame game” hides fault for government shutdown

In Washington, it’s called “the blame game.”

Its purpose is to assign fault when things go wrong, so that voters will know who to support and who to oppose at election time.

It quickly gets down to simple name calling without much reference to facts.  But fault does exist, and voters should at least know who is responsible for what in Washington.

The crisis leading to the federal government shutdown lets us compare blame claims with real responsibility.  Here are some questions and answers.

Why did the government shut down?

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – passed the Congress, totally dependent on Democratic votes in both the House and Senate.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the new law is constitutional.
But the Republicans don’t like it and would like it to be repealed. With a Democratic president and Senate, they stand no chance of repealing this existing law.

Tea Party House Republicans decided the best strategy to undermine the law would be to tie Obamacare changes, designed in a somewhat disguised way to halt the law, to some piece of essential legislation.

Nothing is more essential than funding federal government operations or ensuring that the government pays interest on the federal debt and takes on debt needed to fund already approved activities.

These House Republicans convinced most other GOP members of the House to support a strategy tying passage of these essential measures to changes in the health care law that would more or less gut it.

This strategy has probably never been used before in American history.  The Democrats were committed to preventing it this time, but the House majority refused to back down. The government shut down.

Who’s to blame?

You can decide for yourself who is to blame for what.

But you should be aware that this bill would only keep the government operating until mid-November at its already reduced spending levels.  There are no new spending programs in it.

You should also know that, despite claims by some opponents that the Affordable Care Act represents an unconstitutional invasion of personal rights, because everybody must participate or pay a penalty (just like the income tax), the only body authorized to say whether a law is constitutional has said that it is.

Nothing in this discussion says there’s anything wrong with preferring a private insurance system with the uninsured using emergency rooms, the way it was before Obamacare. But the normal way to go back to that is by passing a new law, perhaps after new elections.

Recent polling finds a strong majority of people do not approve of the House GOP strategy.  That does not mean they all like the health care law, where the poll now shows about an equal split.

Do the Democrats bear any responsibility? 

Sure, but not for the back-and-forth battle between the Senate Democratic majority and the House Republican majority.

Congressional Democrats are upholding the normal way of doing business, an approach that follows the law and keeps the government functioning.  

But President Obama has helped the GOP come to the conclusion that the American people dislike the health care law enough to support closing down the government to stop it.

Until recently, the president had not been aggressively promoting his signature legislation, which may encourage some people to believe misinformation about it is correct.

Once the law was passed, he should have led a massive public campaign to explain it.  It is possible that much opposition to it simply results from a lack of information or misinformation from its opponents.

And his administration failed to get organized and has had to defer some parts of the program, increasing its vulnerability to partisan attack.

What about the media’s role?

Its version of being objective is to give equal time to both sides without covering the facts.  Reporters may worry that the facts favor the Democrats, leaving them open to charges of bias if they say that.  But the media’s balancing act, leading some to assign equal responsibility to each side, is a poor substitute for good reporting.

What did the Maine congressional delegation do?

Both Democratic House members and independent Sen. Angus King opposed making Obamacare concessions to avoid a shutdown. 

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who dislikes both the House approach and Obamacare, voted loyally with all Senate Republicans against a “clean bill”, in effect supporting the House GOP strategy.  In contrast, a few courageous House Republicans voted against the Tea Party strategy.

Next year in Maine and across the country, will voters decide who’s to blame?

Setting “red lines” is a mistake

Drawing a “red line” is turning out to be a mistake.

President Obama drew a red line, warning the Syrian government not to cross it by using chemical weapons against rebels in its civil war.

U.S. House Republicans drew a red line, saying that if the Democrats did not agree to defund the Affordable Care Act, they would block almost all federal government spending, causing a shutdown. 

Ironically, like Social Security and Medicare, the health act – Obamacare – cannot be stopped in a shutdown.

The House GOP also threatens to prevent a debt ceiling increase, making possible a default on the federal debt for the first time in history.

Syria crossed Obama’s red line, but the United States had no plan of action.

And the Affordable Care Act will not be halted because neither Obama nor the Senate would agree to that. 

Posturing seems to be taking the place of policy.  Leaders either want to govern by making threats or by seeking short-term political gains.

The problem with drawing red lines is that not all issues can be resolved in terms of black-and-white alternatives.  Leaders need to explain why drawing a line is not the best choice.
In fact, making policy choices seem like a simple option between right and wrong in a world where matters are often complicated can produce dangerous situations.

In Syria, Obama was unsure about how to take out the regime’s chemical weapons without harming civilians or possibly helping terrorists, who are part of the opposition forces.  He looked exposed when he found little support from either traditional allies or members of Congress.

If anything, the budget situation in Washington is even worse.  Some 40 strongly conservative Republican House members, who hold the swing votes between the rest of the GOP and the Democratic minority, forced their party to the brink of shutting down the government.

This hard-core group seems to believe that it can get voters to see the Democrats as being responsible for closing down the federal government because they are unwilling to cancel or suspend Obamacare.

Voters may not be fooled about how a government shutdown originated, which could bring a GOP electoral setback. The Republicans paid at the polls for the 1995 shutdown they engineered. 

By now, what emerges from these current crises is that major issues cannot be settled by imposing red lines.  Automatic decisions resulting from lines being crossed are not a substitute for political leadership.

Instead of each side attacking the other, it would be helpful if the president and members of Congress tried to explain exactly what was at stake and why. 

What has been reduced in the news to a partisan tussle needs to be better understood.   

Both sides in Congress, no matter what position they take on Obamacare, ought to make clear that the hard-core solution is bad for the country.

While it has become common to blame both parties for excessive partisanship, the problem may really be a lack of leadership.

House Speaker John Boehner should accept budget legislation, even if more Democrats than his Republican members vote for it.  By insisting that he must have a GOP-dominated result, he preserves his job as Speaker, but reveals his unwillingness to take a political risk for the good of the country.

Why don’t more in Congress oppose the Tea Party?  Because nobody knows for sure if voters will favor its deeply conservative tactics or a more moderate approach in the November 2014 elections.

Whether that’s good politics remains to be seen, but it certainly isn’t good for the country. 

Red lines are not a substitute for leadership.  When drop-dead ultimatums cannot be backed up, they produce undesirable results.

Economic recovery will certainly suffer as businesses and homebuyers hunker down to see how budget matters get sorted out.  And there are no winners if the government defaults on its debt.

So we are left with many in Washington playing dangerous games with the credit and economic health of the United States.

People making empty threats are revealed as powerless.  After a while, few will take seriously those imposing red lines. 

After the Syria warning, the United States has lost some influence in the world, because other countries saw it had no plan when the red line was crossed.

In the federal budget crisis, right-wing GOP House members, making grand gestures to please their supporters, won’t control the government or kill Obamacare.

Meanwhile, the situation, whether at home or abroad, can get worse. Red lines can create problems, not solve them.