Opinion

The Great Debate

What Democrats have going for them? Republicans

Democrats had one thing going for them in the election this week: Republicans. That kept President Barack Obama’s party from faring much worse.

Dissatisfaction with the economy is still very high. In the network exit polls, more than 80 percent of Virginia and New Jersey voters said they were worried about the nation’s economy over the next year.

The economy was the top issue in both states. New Jersey voters concerned about the economy voted 2 to 1 for Republican Governor Chris Christie — even though he was the incumbent. It isn’t his economy. It’s Obama’s economy. That’s the new rule in American politics: All politics is national.

In Virginia, however, the poor economy didn’t do the Republican candidate much good. Virginia voters who cited the economy as their top concern split their vote, 49 percent for Republican Ken Cuccinelli and 43 percent for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

The Republican should have carried Virginia. Obama’s job rating among Virginia voters was down 6 points since 2012. Nonetheless, McAuliffe built solid majorities in the same New America constituencies that had delivered the state for Obama last year: women, racial minorites, educated professionals and young voters. Particularly unmarried women, whom Cuccinelli offended with his attacks on abortion, divorce and contraception. The Republican vote among unmarried women in Virginia dropped from 34 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 to 25 percent for Cuccinelli in 2013.

Not ‘court-packing,’ GOP’s aim is ‘court-shrinking’

The party that brought you “death panels” and “socialized medicine” has rolled out another term — carefully selected, like the others, for its power to freak people out. “Court-packing” now joins a Republican rogue’s gallery of poll-tested epithets.

Of course, “court-packing” is not a new term, and its menacing overtone is not a recent discovery. “There is a good deal of prejudice against ‘packing the court,’” observed Homer Cummings, the U.S. attorney general, in 1936, on the eve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed attempt to do just that — to tip the Supreme Court’s balance by increasing the number of seats and filling them with New Dealers. Cummings, who sold the idea to FDR, hoped Americans would not be “frightened by a phrase.”

But they were. And today’s GOP is betting they still are. Hence the resort to a term that has no valid application to the matter at hand: President Barack Obama’s determination to fill the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Why the U.S. must lead on Disabilities Treaty

In an HIV clinic in Africa, a man born deaf holds a single sheet of paper with a plus sign. He looks for help, but no one at the clinic speaks sign language. In fact, the staff doesn’t seem interested in helping him at all.

He returns to his plus sign. These are his test results. They dictate he should start antiretroviral drugs immediately and should also make changes in his sexual habits. But he doesn’t know this. He leaves the clinic concluding that the plus sign must mean he’s okay, that everything is just fine.

This scenario seems shocking. Yet it continues to play out around the world. The Senate will tackle this issue at the November 5th hearings on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — the Disabilities Treaty.

Post-Partisan: Fixing our ideological divide

As Americans examine the astounding dysfunction of their government, gerrymandering is usually cited as the prime culprit. This narrative offers a compelling villain: venal politicians who draw district boundaries for partisan advantage or to protect their own incumbency.

On the surface, it makes sense that manipulating district lines could be responsible for the increase in non-competitive, non-diverse congressional seats and the rise of ideologues who take radical positions without fear of voter retribution. But this ignores evidence that gerrymandering is only partly responsible for the current partisanship — and that eliminating it will not address the calamity we are witnessing.

No one disputes that congressional districts have become less competitive. During the last government shutdown in 1995, 79 of the 236 House Republicans represented districts that supported President Bill Clinton in his 1992 election. Today, only 17 of the 232 House Republicans represent districts that backed President Barack Obama — demonstrating more partisan consistency at the district level.

Post-shutdown: Time for recriminations

Recriminations!

It’s a familiar ritual in Washington every time a party loses a battle or a candidate loses an election. Only this time, it could lead to something more serious: A split in the Republican Party.

The most severe recriminations are aimed at the Tea Party. Why did they take on a fight they were certain to lose? And without any endgame or exit strategy? Don’t they understand how politics works?

Here’s the answer: No.

Or rather, they do understand how politics works — and they reject it. The United States has a Constitution that divides power. The only way anything gets done is through deal-making and compromise. It’s been that way for 225 years. (See the movie Lincoln for a good example).

The power in a president’s mandate

The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”

Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.

“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

The budget is its own ‘debt ceiling’

It could be that President Barack Obama and the Republican House of Representatives will again be able to avert fiscal and financial chaos through a short-term, ad hoc agreement on government funding and the “debt ceiling” limit. This would be good news for the world and its markets.

Going forward, however, we should repeal the 1917 Liberty Bond Act — the source of the “debt ceiling” regime that everyone’s talking about. This was effectively superseded by today’s budget regime, enacted under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Making this explicit by repealing the 1917 “debt limit” regime is preferable to leaving things merely implicit as they are now.

In what sense does the 1974 regime “implicitly” repeal the 1917 regime? To answer, begin with this apocryphal early 20th century statute familiar to some lawyers: This law supposedly imposed a strange, impossible requirement on two train conductors when their trains approach from opposite directions. The conductor of each train was to stop, await the other train’s passage and then continue the journey. If read literally, of course, this statute would leave trains idling indefinitely on the prairies, shutting down the railway. So the law cannot require what the “plain” language seems to suggest — nor would any court rule this way.

Why this shutdown isn’t like 1995

The political battlefield of the current government shutdown looks a lot like the last big shutdown of 1995. But major changes within the Republican Party in Congress — a weaker leadership, the demise of moderates and two decades of gerrymandering — could make this year’s endgame far harder.

Then as now, a rebellious Republican Congress used a budget bill to set up a deliberate confrontation with a Democratic president over spending priorities. GOP militants and radicals in the House – today’s wing nuts — bet that gridlock, disarray and the embarrassment of a shutdown would force the White House to give in.

Then, as now, the president defied the Republican brinksmanship and took the political risk of a government shutdown rather than bowing to the GOP’s surrender terms. Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sport of sparring with Congress and President Barack Obama, after giving in so many times in the past three years, has finally decided to dig in his heels.

Shutdown: A fight with no room for compromise

To end the government shutdown, all Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to do is let the House of Representatives vote on a budget. It would pass within 30 minutes. Virtually all 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open, as would as many as 50 Republicans. An easy majority.

But no. Boehner and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are in thrall to Tea Party conservatives. Hard-line conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans. But those conservatives are threatening to lead an insurrection against party leaders if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they don’t go along with the Tea Party.

So what have we got? Minority government.

It’s outrageous when you think about it. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. Why? “Because we’re right, simply because we’re right,” one of them told the New York Times.

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