Electoral Reform- Part 1: Is There a Need?

On Election Day, as I was following the returns from around the country on Politico (I was following all the races, not just President), somewhere on the lower part of their list of articles was one entitled, “The Real Winner: More Gridlock.” This was published before any votes had been tallied and was the consensus of political “experts.” This was based on an assumption that Obama would win, the GOP would keep the House and the take-over of the Senate by Republicans would not occur. And when everyone speaks of gridlock, it is always in a negative light. What liberals fail to understand is that what they call obstructionism is to others fighting for values that they hold near and dear.

After the 2010 midterms, perhaps stunned by the dramatic turnaround in the make up of the House, many pundits wrote articles and books and papers on the need to reform the American political system. These calls for reform ran the gamut from scrapping the electoral college, term limits, rewriting Senate rules, and campaign finance reform (again). However, they all start with what I believe to be an erroneous assumption: that the system is broken. Instead of being broken, the 2010 midterms can more accurately be interpreted as a huge political adjustment back to the right. Since 2004, Democrats had been slowly chipping away at GOP majorities in the House and Senate so that by the time Obama was elected, they built up workable majorities in both houses of Congress. And for that one-party rule, the country was treated to a year long battle to reform health care when other items- notably jobs- were put on the back burner. We also had an attempt at cap-and-trade legislation, an $800 billion “stimulus,” a financial regulations reform package that failed to address the causes of the most recent great recession, an auto industry bail out or nationalization, and the furtherance of the nationalization of the banking system through TARP.

Most pundits lay the blame at the feet of the Republican Party, specifically the Tea Party, for the alleged extreme polarization of politics today. Instead, a better way to look at the 2010 midterms where the GOP took the House and weakened the Democratic hold in the Senate was a natural adjustment in the electorate. In effect, under Obama and a Democratic House and Senate, the nation had lurched to abruptly and too strongly to the left. When that happens in a basically right-of-center country, the consequential adjustment back to the center is equally abrupt. That is what happened in the midterm elections. In fact, a greater case can be made that post-2010, Congressional polarization is greater on the left than on the right. That is because so many Democrats were swept out of Congress and those that were left were from extremely liberal districts, mainly in California and New York. It is also true that some of the more conservative Democrats were caught in the net and swept from office. But, this simply reinforced left-leaning polarization rather than tempering it. Furthermore, not every Republican elected in 2010 was Tea Party-backed. In fact, Fox News placed the win percentage for Tea Party candidates at only 32%. In the Senate, there were several vulnerable Democrats who survived their elections against Tea Party-backed candidates- Harry Reid in Nevada, Mike Bennett in Colorado, the Joe Miller defeat in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Probably the Tea Party’s greatest achievement was the election of Senator Johnson in Wisconsin. But, most of their other senatorial victories were no-brainers: Jim DeMint in South Carolina, Mike Lee in Utah, Jerry Moran in Kansas, and Rand Paul in Kentucky. All of these are victories in decidedly red states. Even the Rubio victory in Florida deserves an asterisk next to it since it was a three-way race. In short, other than Wisconsin, if a Tea Party-backed candidate had a substantial victory in a blue state in 2010, then perhaps we could claim that the Tea Party is responsible for the alleged polarization in Congress today or, more broadly, that the GOP is mainly responsible. And in 2012, although the ink still is not dry, it appears as if electorally, the Tea Party’s success is at or below 2010 levels.

This theory only further underscores the assumption that it is the GOP that is outside the political mainstream and that they are mainly responsible for congressional gridlock. It always amuses this writer how these pundits often state that the other side is responsible also, however you have to take care to the parse the statement after the inevitable “but…” A perfect example is the media’s interpretation of Mitch McConnell’s statement that the next two years would be making sure Obama was not reelected. They read that as a call to obstructionism and the Democratic Party played it to the hilt portraying the GOP as “the party of no.” As leader of the minority party in the Senate, McConnell would be silly to state that the next two years would be dedicated to making sure a Democratic President was reelected in 2012. It is not the role of the opposition party to roll over and play dead and accept without question the policies and programs of the majority party or the occupant of the White House. Regardless, it did not exactly end up that way.

As proof, they claim there are two glaring examples of the bad aspects of McConnell’s philosophy. The first is the alleged disappearance of congressional order. This can be illustrated on the macro and micro levels. On the micro level is the apparent friction between Tea Party elements and the so-called establishment Republicans. Obviously, there are differences of agreement on how to proceed or how far to go in advancing conservative policies and programs, but this is nothing new and certainly not intrinsic the GOP. One would hope that there be give-and-take on both sides in order to further a broader conservative agenda in an organized, concerted manner. However, this certainly was not the reason for Romney’s loss this year, although it played some role in the Senatorial debacle, particularly in Indiana and Missouri. After the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, there was a battle between the more liberal wing led by Nancy Pelosi and the more moderate wing led by North Carolina Representative Heath Shuler. Likewise, there will be that friction between a John Boehner and the more conservative Republicans on the other side. But, most pundits conveniently forget the Pelosi-Shuler power struggle. Meanwhile on the macro level, they claim a breakdown of congressional order. Order is dictated by the rules and nothing the Republicans have done while in control of the House has broken any congressional rule. In fact, even in the minority, nothing the GOP has done in the Senate has broken any rule. Thus, there can be no breakdown of congressional order. One could make a case that by ramming Obamacare through the budget reconciliation process, it was the Democrats who broke the rules- or at least skirted them- and created congressional disorder. This is further backed up by the fact that at least a GOP-led House passed a budget, something Pelosi failed to do when she led the House.

The second line of attack is that the GOP is somehow denying the legitimacy of the President. Actually, it is the voters in 243 congressional districts in 2010 who questioned not Obama’s legitimacy, but his policies. And these detractors have a lot of chutzpah! Who received more derision as President than George W. Bush after his 2000 election win? To assert that now the GOP is guilty of denying Obama presidential legitimacy is hypocrisy of the highest order. Regardless, no one denies him that legitimacy- he won the 2008 election by a comfortable margin and took states he was not expected to take. And this year, despite claims it would be a close race, he likewise won by a comfortable margin. Yet, at the more local level, there was no embrace of his policies as the GOP kept the House and COULD HAVE taken the Senate easily. Republicans would be fools to walk lockstep with his policies and programs. If opposition to the President’s policies are now considered an act of defiance, or an attempt to deny him legitimacy, then this would run counter to over 200 years of Presidential politics and Presidential-Congressional relations.

The natural tendency, on the personal level, is to demonize the opposition party or personalities. Not to get into a “they started it” type of analysis, but who was more demonized and trivialized than George W. Bush? Even iconic Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan are not immune from demonization at the hands of the opposition party. That comes with the territory since the President is the face of the Party. Of course, the problem is compounded in this case since Obama is black. Therefore, demonizing or casting him in a bad light is necessarily interpreted as an act of racism. If you look around at the 2010 and 2012 elections and spending by outside groups, you will find that negative or attack ads play much better and have a more of an effect on electoral outcomes. That is why most of this advertisement is of a negative nature. Voters seem to look for reasons not to vote for someone rather than a reason to vote for someone. That is where the attack/negative ads come in and seem to resonate more than positive advertisements. Think about it- are those political commercials that most stick in your head negative or positive? We remember the negative to a greater degree. But, this is certainly not new ground broken by outside groups. The all-time prototypical negative attack ad was aired in 1964 against Barry Goldwater.

The bottom line is whether this leads to a decrease in legislative productivity? Obviously, when one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, their legislative agenda will have a greater chance of success. Even still, it took over a year to narrowly pass Obamacare and even then through backdoor means. In effect, the blame for current alleged gridlock can be laid at the feet of Obama since he dithered for 18 months on health care reform when more pressing problems confronted the nation- mainly jobs, debt, and the economy. Still, one needs to question if there is gridlock for its own sake. The Constitution sets up a system where local, parochial interests are subordinated to the national interest. For example, corn subsidies in Iowa and Illinois are no more important to the voter in New Jersey than beach replenishment is to the voter in Iowa and Illinois. Yet all to often, those bills that get caught up in this gridlock concern not national problems and interests, but local/parochial ones. But because of our now expansive federal government, everything of a local nature now takes on a national nature by proxy. It was never intended to be this way and it amuses me when people point at the Tea Party and blame them. It is the Tea Party that is simply arguing for an adherence to the Constitution. If anyone actually reads the powers enumerated in the Constitution, one would expect a Defense, State, Treasury and perhaps Commerce Department. But that isn’t the case now, is it?

Democrats argue that Republicans posit non-negotiable demands that create the gridlock. What should be negotiable about a fair and equitable tax policy, or the reduction of national debt? They accuse the GOP of holding hostage those things formerly taken for granted. Just look at the debate over raising the country’s debt limit. The biggest talking point of the Democratic Party was that this was always a given and that to do otherwise would seriously damage the “full faith and credit” of the United States. But, at what point do we stop rubber stamping every request to increase the debt limit? The most recent battle centered around that question exactly! The Democrats know full well that simply rubber stamping this because “that is what we always do” will do nothing towards reducing national debt. The same is true of the Bush tax cuts and their expiration. They portray it as some GOP war on the middle class and holding the middle class “hostage” to extension for the wealthier taxpayers of these tax cuts. Actually, it is the Democrats holding the middle class hostage in the name of class warfare. Practically every reliable economic report clearly shows that raising taxes on the wealthy will add very little revenue to reduce the debt. The revenue would be but a drop in the bucket and, in effect, not worth the fiscal effort, but definitely a worthy public relations effort for the Democrats. Who, then one should ask, is holding the middle class hostage?

There is no doubt that congressional approval ratings of Congress are at an all-time low. Also, fewer people today identify themselves with either major party and an increasing percentage of Americans consider themselves “independents.” But, there is another polling answer that many overlook: more people consider themselves conservative than liberal. Also, the ranks of those who consider themselves conservative is growing at a faster rate than those who consider themselves liberal. It is ironic that most pundits consider Congress today highly polarized while the electorate considers itself increasingly moderate or conservative and independent. If these polls are correct, then somewhere along the line some threshold will be breached and both the ultra-liberal and the ultra-conservative will lose power in Congress. Because of congressional districting, not all at either end of the spectrum will be eliminated, nor should they be. But, to assert that we have to rip apart our Constitutional system to break alleged gridlock is absurd. We are in the middle of a shift in political attitudes as we have been throughout our history and we are still here. That is a testament to the beauty of our system. If the Tea Party is extreme, then we should see a mellowing of it in the future. Even Nancy Pelosi’s and Charles Rangel’s incumbencies are not without limits. Nor are the incumbencies of the staunchest conservatives in Congress.

As proof of these changes in political attitudes, one need look no further than the gay marriage issue and how it fared in ballot referendums this year. Prior to 2012, gay marriage was defeated everywhere it made the ballot, including California. This year, it was approved in three states and a ban against it defeated in a fourth. Although the LGBT community and their liberal allies will likely use this as proof of “changing attitudes,” you need to also look at the margins by which these measures passed. In rather liberal states, they garnered slightly more than 50% of the vote- hardly overwhelming majorities which signal a huge change in attitudes. Hence, like political “polarization” in general, this issue will remain at the forefront of social issues just as the concerns over the national debt and the future of the American economy will dominate on the fiscal front. In the end, it not necessarily polarization that is the issue, but a necessary adjustment in reaction to Obama’s policies.

Some have suggested that the Tea Party itself should “break away” from the GOP and be a stand-alone political party. I hope to show in part 2 how that would spell not disaster for the Republican Party, but for conservatism itself in this country. This is a series of articles I have been meaning to write for some time now and feel that now is best in the wake of this past election. These alleged reforms, like the alleged “problems,” need to be analyzed, parsed, and addressed.