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Lincoln's Legacy of Political Lemons


The GOP often likes to remind Americans that they are “the party of Lincoln,” something that has become increasingly difficult to remember in modern times. This week, they could not have seemed less Lincolnesque as they engaged in a form of governance that clearly put the will of a few over the greater good of many.

Most frustrating about the failures in Washington this week is the sense that we've already done this, just two years ago. Our economy was rocked, billions of taxpayer dollars were lost and the U.S. Government's credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history, all because one party took a procedural vote to authorize spending already passed into law and used it to try and leverage political concessions that it did not have the votes to achieve.

Here we are now again, with the largest employer in the U.S. (our federal government) by and large closed for business, while 800,000 employees wonder about their next paycheck and Washington remains at a standstill – not even debating a short-term funding of the government until October 17 – when the real disaster could begin as the U.S. would not have enough money to make interest payments on its existing debt. An ultimate refusal to do so will cause economic bedlam, as the U.S. defaults on its debt obligations and investors lose confidence in our currency.

Now, our currency is also the world's reserve currency, which gives us an enormous economic advantage and directly impacts American standards of living at all levels, from the price of gasoline in U.S. dollars to stable inflation rates, even at times of trade imbalance. Giving the world a very good reason to examine alternative reserve currencies is about as dumb and irresponsible as it gets, as losing that status would damage the U.S. economy more than every budget item, health care reform and dollar of debt or deficit combined by a factor of infinity.

Yet here we sit, once more egaged in a game of high-stakes chicken because House leadership refuses to allow a vote on a so-called “clean” funding bill that would clearly pass both chambers and be signed by the President. They resist in order to placate a small faction of the party who insist on using the threat on tanking the global economy to kill a law that isn't going anywhere. They say they are doing it because the American people are opposed to Obamacare, yet when polling demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of the tactic, it didn't move their position an inch.

For too long in Washington, there has existed a prevailing notion that there is a wing-nut element in the Republican party which must be appeased. Run of the mill country club Republicans have become so afraid of populist primary attacks and the "other" Republican money coffers which finance them, that there's been an attitude of appeasement which has been understood and even met with a certain degree of empathy across the aisle. Poor Boehner, he's got to deal with those crazies.

Last week I read Bob Woodward's The Price of Politics. It was an excellent if entirely frustrating account of the political mess that preceded the last "debt ceiling crisis," by perhaps the best American journalist in several generations. Woodward's main focus is the colossal missed opportunity that took place, the failure of both parties to reach a "grand bargain" that could restore economic sensibility over the long haul.

But Woodward's bird's eye look at the internal dynamics of the debacle leaves the reader sick over what was, much more so than what wasn't; the childish bickering, the leadership vacuums at the highest levels of government in both parties, and the petty politics that much more than ideological divides, proved to be the Achilles' heel on the hill.

The endgame of that standoff seemed to be simple and straightforward: the 2012 elections would be a high stakes affair. The sides would be clearly drawn and the American people would speak – and they did! Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney made the repeal of Obamacare the central focus of his 2012 campaign. In case anyone forgot, he was soundly defeated.

Obamacare was also ground zero in Congressional races where Democrats picked up seats in both chambers. In the House, 29 of the new seats were picked up by Democrats and only 16 by Republicans. Democrats had nearly a million and a half more votes nationwide and only failed to win the gavel because of favorable Republican redistricting following the 2010 census, which occurred right after the GOP won a stronghold on many state legislatures in the mid-terms. Remember, it was only the second time since World War II that a party won a plurality of votes, but did not take control of the chamber.

So our government is being held hostage by an artificial majority in one chamber of one branch, and all they want in return is the signature legislation of the other party – the one that controls both the White House and the Senate – while the third branch of government has already weighed in on the legislation, back when the Supreme Court upheld it. As Hardball's Chris Mathews put it on Meet the Press Sunday morning, when you're conducting a ransom, you're supposed to take the baby and demand the money. The GOP is taking the money and asking for the baby. That's not the way it works, even in a place as utterly illogical as Washington, D.C. Elections have consequences.

The tactic being employed by the GOP is not only counterintuitive, but counterproductive. Understand, the government shutdown will cost the government money. It will add to the deficit, not reduce it. Then again, this isn't about debt or even the deficit, which by the way is shrinking at its fastest rate since demobilization after World War II. For the love of God, the bill passed by the Senate spends less in 2014 than Paul Ryan proposed for 2014 in his plan, released just before the last time we did this. The Republicans have received their spending reductions and have been appeased by not having to give the new revenues demanded by the other side – raising tax limits on those making over $250,000 per year to Clinton-era levels of 39 percent.

This is instead about a new sort of governing which says you don't have to play by the rules. You don't need to have the American people behind you. You don't even need to win elections. If you don't have the votes to pass a law and create change through legislation, you simply engage in political and ultimately economic terrorism. I've heard a lot of Republicans quote Ronald Reagan this week, so here's another one of Ronnie's lines: “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”

Better still, let's look to the words of Lincoln. In terms of his oratorical legacy, the Republican Party's most famous President is perhaps best known for his Lincoln-Douglas debates and his "House Divided" speech. Yet his lesser known Cooper Union Address may have been his finest work. Campaigning for President in 1860, Lincoln sought to demonstrate that the idea of controlling the expansion of slavery dated back to the founding fathers, noting that a majority of those who signed the constitution believed so, but were foiled by others who threatened to secede. He talked about the way the threats of radicals could inhibit democracy in a republic.

"... you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events."

Rule or ruin in all events? What would Lincoln think of his party today? There is no principal being stood for. The sum damage that will be done far exceeds even the wildest and most damning estimations made by health care reform's harshest critics. Republicans can't possibly hope to get enough concessions as to outweigh the damage they inflict, and in any likely scenario they will get nothing at all. Their best chance to prevent millions of people from getting access to health insurance was the 2012 elections. That ship has sailed. The next opportunity would have been winning big in 2014 Congressional races – fat chance now.

How will all of this play out? Clearly, the only answer is to stand up to those who would do damage and harm in order to get their way at all costs. Otherwise, one is implicitly endorsing such tactics and any time a party lacks the votes or popular support to follow the process of government, they will go nuclear and count on whoever has the greatest number of sane minds in the room at the moment to blink first. This is no way to govern and many Republicans in Washington have quietly said so, but lack the political courage to stand up and shout it out loud. Republicans can either continue to placate a shrinking if hyper-vocal base, or they can come to terms with the fact that Republics do not function by minority rule. It's clear who a majority of Americans blame for this embarrassing episode and they are unlikely to forget in the next 13 months. 

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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