Dear Republican Friends,
Look, we need to talk. We can’t keep going like this. No matter how much you dislike President Obama and no matter how much you disagree with his policies, you need to vote for him in November. I’m not saying you have to like it or that you can’t go back to voting even for extreme conservatives in the next election, but this election is different.
The problem is not that the issues involved in this cycle are THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES EVAR. No, they’re important, but many elections have involved similarly important issues. I think you’re wrong about taxes, spending, healthcare, foreign policy, the judiciary, and regulation. But I’m happy to keep disagreeing on these subjects in the normal course of our politics.
Here’s the thing: if Romney wins, it validates a strategy that, if adopted by my team too, will make America pretty much ungovernable. From the day Obama was inaugurated, the Republican strategy has been to refuse to cooperate on virtually every issue, to fight every piece of legislation, to block every nomination, and even to threaten to kill clearly needed legislation in the style of a hostage taker.
And when I say “from the day Obama was inaugurated,” I mean it literally. That night, at a strategy dinner organized by one of the world’s most repulsive humans, Frank Luntz, and attended by House and Senate Republican leaders, including Paul Ryan, key Republicans discussed the need to “challenge [the new administration] on every single bill.” Killing everything, running on a lack of progress to take back the House in the midterms and the White House in 2012, that was what mattered. Newt Gingrich told the assembled crowd: “You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
One attendee, Texas rep Pete Sessions, explained shortly after this and after the House Republicans had unanimously voted against the stimulus bill:
Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes. And these Taliban — I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.
In 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell famously declared that his most important priority was to ensure that President Obama would be a one-term president. Supposed fact checkers have pointed out that, in the context of that interview, McConnell perhaps showed more flexibility. But in the context of everything else we know, it could not be clearer that winning the White House in 2012 using a strategy of unyielding obstruction was precisely his top priority. That mindless, nihilistic obstruction has been a means to that end is obvious not only from the record but also from what other senators have said. We know this both from off-the-record comments and also from on-the-record statements. Here’s former Senator George Voinovich:
If he was for it, we had to be against it. … . He wanted everyone to hold the fort. All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.
Vice President Biden claims he was told by several Republican Senators, before taking office, “For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.” You may generally disbelieve Biden, but the gist of these conversations was confirmed by Republican Senators Bob Bennett and Arlen Specter. (The source here is the same link as above, an article by Greg Sargent reporting on the contents of Michael Grunwald’s book, The New New Deal.)
And obstruct they have. I won’t recite the list of bills and appointments Republicans have blocked. Loud, obnoxious, and illogical opposition in the House is paired with efficacious holds and filibustering in the Senate. Take a look at this chart showing that the number of filibusters more than doubled when Democrats took control of the Senate. It is to the point where absolutely nothing gets through the Senate without sixty votes, which means Republicans can and, more importantly and tragically, do veto everything. The Democrats did indeed maintain a sixty-vote majority for a brief period, counting two independents who normally voted with them, but any sensible person quickly understands that’s not enough, given the way that a single Democratic vote could be easily peeled off. (Obstruction could provide the appearance of division that would be used as a bludgeon in races in vulnerable districts.)
This strategy combines toxically with a party ideology that moderates of all stripes have observed growing increasingly inflexible, increasingly unmoored from the facts and pragmatism, and ever more fond of insane litmus tests like Grover Norquist’s tax pledge (guaranteeing in advance that no matter what happens candidates will not vote for any income tax increase of any kind).
But, my fellow American, I’m not asking you to vote against your party because of its policy choices. I do find inexplicable their insistence on dramatically cutting spending in the wake of a demand-induced recession despite record low interest rates and no real inflation, their dogged determination to maintain historically low levels of taxation on the richest Americans, their obsession with eliminating regulations, their preoccupation with controlling female sexuality, and their attachment to wild-eyed, unrealistic foreign policies. I’m not giving you any arguments on those here, however. But pointing out just how extreme your party has become goes some way toward explaining why they’d be willing to engage in unprecedented levels of hypocrisy (fully aware how hyperbolic that can sound when discussing political bodies) to defeat a president:
The results can border on the absurd: In early 2009, several of the eight Republican co-sponsors of a bipartisan health-care reform plan dropped their support; by early 2010, the others had turned on their own proposal so that there would be zero GOP backing for any bill that came within a mile of Obama’s reform initiative. As one co-sponsor, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “I liked it because it was bipartisan. I wouldn’t have voted for it.”
And seven Republican co-sponsors of a Senate resolution to create a debt-reduction panel voted in January 2010 against their own resolution, solely to keep it from getting to the 60-vote threshold Republicans demanded and thus denying the president a seeming victory.
Now stick with me. It’s perfectly fine for the opposition robustly to fight the President’s agenda. Especially after losing a high profile election, it’s natural to get together, to strategize about how to protect what matters most in your own agenda, even to make plans to win the next election. And normal politicking involves caricaturing your opponents, tough negotiations, and rough rhetoric. Our politics, though, have gone well past this.
The President has compromised endlessly only to attract zero Republican votes and face, again no matter how compromising, charges that he was partisan and uncompromising. If we liberals had our way, we’d have single-payer healthcare, an adequate stimulus (twice as big as what was done and as all reasonable economists indicated was necessary - and as interest rates are virtually begging us to undertake), bankruptcy cramdown, no prison in Guantanamo, much higher marginal rates on top earners, and the list goes on. But we never expected to get our way on everything. People disagree about things, especially important things. That’s fine. And it’s why the president’s healthcare plan took as its model a conservative proposal that had managed to unite the parties in the past.
The immediate and urgent problem here is not what Republicans believe but the two-fold strategy they have chosen to pursue: (1) Make sure nothing gets done. (2) Run a campaign criticizing President Obama for not getting anything done.
This can’t be allowed to work, and I think this is a point on which we both can agree. This is so important that I want to say it again: This can’t be allowed to work. Imagine your party’s candidate does win. What is my party supposed to do? If we adopt your strategy, Romney will fail. Winning an election does not mean you should be able to get your way without compromise. But at the very least everyone in our system should be accountable. You don’t get to obstruct everything and then run a campaign accusing your opponent of failing to reach across the aisle to get things done. If you think that’s an acceptable strategy, then ask yourself if you want my party to adopt it.
Wait a minute, some of my independent-minded friends may say! The problem here is the two-party system. We just need a viable third party. Nonsense, unless you’re plan is (a) to replace the winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system we have, with, say, a parliamentary system or (b) to destroy and remake one of the two parties you generally favor. Believing that a three party system is viable in the presidential context under our current election rules is like believing the moon is made out of cheese. I’m quite open to thinking about (a) — though not at all sure how realistic such a radical change is. And on (b), well if it leads to the remaking of a more pragmatically minded conservative party, I’m all for it. But it’s a method for realigning, maybe even renaming!, the two parties, not for stably adding a third.
I understand the stakes here. The economy is likely to improve over the coming years (at least in the short term), regardless of who is elected. If Obama is re-elected, he will probably go down as a great president, for many reasons. If not, Romney will get credit for rescuing the economy. But more important than any particular policy is our continued ability to make policy at all. The model of governance and campaigning demonstrated by the Republican party over the last four years, if adopted by everyone, would be a suicide pact. Let’s not sign it.