This is an excerpt of the October 2013 Longbrake Letter. To read the letter in its entirety, click here.
Without attempting to dig deeper into the details of the current situation, which is evolving hourly, I think it might be instructive to provide some commentary about how we got to this point in our political affairs because it will shed light on what we might expect going forward.
While the proximate primary cause of the current political dysfunction is traceable to the rise of the Tea Party and the substantial number of Tea Party House Republicans, to appreciate the reasons that this minority faction of the Republican Party has such commanding influence one needs to understand how the mechanics of political party leadership determination has evolved over the last 45 years.
George Friedman recently wrote an insightful analytic commentary entitled “The Roots of the Government Shutdown.”¹ Beginning in the late 1960s, at the same time as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements were gaining momentum, political reformers sought to break the power of party bosses by sponsoring reforms, principally by selecting leaders through primaries, but also by establishing rules governing financial contributions.
In the old party-boss system, money was important in politics just as it is today and it flowed through the party bosses, who used it and the ability to control patronage jobs, such as local postmasters, to maintain their power bases. The reformers objected to the inherently corrupt aspects of the party-boss system. However, as Friedman points out, the party-boss system produced some truly great presidents, such as the two Roosevelts – Theodore and Franklin, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy.
In addition, and this is key, party bosses were generally political pragmatists. They were more interested in acquiring, exercising and maintaining power than they were in pursuing highly ideological agendas.
Primaries destroyed the power of political bosses and in that regard the reform movement was successful. But there was an unintended and unexpected consequence. In most states party registration is required and only registered members of a party can vote for candidates of that party in a primary.² By itself this would not necessarily lead to narrowly-based outcomes. But, because typically a small percentage of voters participate in primaries and “true believers” are more likely to vote in primaries than centrists or independents, fervent party members who often have focused, ideological agendas, can dominate primary outcomes.
This means that because of the realities of how the primary system works in most states, ideological minorities often can control election outcomes or can threaten more centrist Republicans with the possibility of primary challengers. Take, for example, the case of Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has been a senator for 28 years and is the Senate Republican minority leader. He already has an announced Tea Party challenger for the 2014 primary election. It is much too early to speculate how this election could turn out. The challenger could defeat McConnell in the primary or so weaken McConnell that he could lose to the Democrat challenger in the general election. Since both are very real possibilities, it seems possible these threats to his re-election could influence McConnell’s political decisions in the current crisis.
Friedman also discusses the importance of money in politics. The reformers sought to reduce the influence of money by limiting individual contributions to political candidates. But other reforms, such as political action committees, circumvented the effectiveness of individual contribution limits. Then, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case opened up the flood gates for corporations and large individual donors to contribute to candidates who espouse the donor’s ideological agenda.
There is one more ingredient that has contributed to the current situation. Several years ago the Supreme Court opined that House district boundaries needed to be drawn in a way that did not discriminate against specific groups of Americans – the one-man, one-vote rule. In practice this resulted in drawing boundaries that concentrated the percentage of certain groups and assured election of minority candidates. But, this also enabled boundary drawers to gerrymander remaining district boundaries to create safe seats for either Republicans or Democrats. The Constitution requires a census of the U.S. population to be conducted every ten years and for House districts to have approximately equal numbers. Because of population shifts over time, this leads almost always to the need to redraw district boundaries. Typically this is the task of a state legislature and whichever party controls the state legislature has the upper hand in drawing the boundaries.
2010 was the year of the most recent decennial census and it fell to state legislatures elected in 2010 to draw House district boundaries. 2010 just happened to be the landslide election year for Republicans, not just in the House of Representatives but also in many states, as voters reacted negatively to President Obama’s policies in general and to the Affordable Care Act in particular. The outcome was that Republicans were able to gerrymander many districts to create a high probability of a Republican House majority. Many of these gerrymandered Republican seats were designed to be safe, so that other than a primary challenger the incumbent need not worry about a serious challenge from a Democratic opponent. Because district boundaries will not be redrawn until after the 2020 decennial census these safe seats will persist for at least another eight years.
Now all of the elements are in place that have fostered and will continue to sustain the ideological tilt that is driving the House’s approach to the federal budget, the debt ceiling and attempts to delay or defund ObamaCare. Most Tea Party Republicans come from safe, gerrymandered districts. They are not threatened by moderate Republican challengers. Many moderate Republicans, because of primary registration requirements and typical voting patterns of party members, are threatened by potential Tea Party challengers. Finally, money flows freely and abundantly to politicians with ideological agendas.
A politician with an ideological agenda in a safe seat has no incentive to compromise. Friedman points out that ideologues have always been a part of the American political fabric. The problem is not one of their existence but of their overrepresentation in the Congress: “… the problem is that the current system magnifies the importance of the ideologues such that current political outcomes increasingly do not reflect the public will, and that this is happening at an accelerated pace. It is not ideology that is the problem. It is the overrepresentation of ideologues in the voting booth. Most Americans are not ideologues, and therefore the reformist model has turned out to be as unrepresentative as the political boss system was. … Each faction is deeply committed to its beliefs, and feels it would be corrupt to abandon them. Even if it means closing the government, even if it means defaulting on debt, ideology is a demanding mistress who permits no other lovers.”
There is little to be hopeful about. What got us into the current predicament cannot be changed overnight. It is difficult for “reason” to prevail and compromise is more challenging to achieve. In the longer run, perhaps reforms will evolve that restore a more democratically representative political process. That is not the case today and the road to reforms that would achieve such a change in the political process is murky at best.
1 George Friedman. “The Roots of the Government Shutdown,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, October 8, 2013.
2 There are a few states that have open primaries. For example, in Washington State, there is no party registration requirement and thus there are not separate primaries based on party registration. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election. Thus, it is possible for two members of the same political party to be on the ballot in the general election.