By Dennis Myers
In the 1950s and early ’60s, U.S. foreign policy was a mess. Under the hammer blows of McCarthyism, policymakers tended to take the opposite position to the Soviet Union, no matter the worth of whatever the issue was. Because the McCarthyites had framed the issues as good versus evil, there was no way a Soviet position could be treated as positive or legitimate. Any Soviet position was immoral, forcing the U.S. into stances that sometimes worked against U.S. interests and well being. The U.S. government twisted itself like a pretzel, trying to make sure it was always in an adversarial posture toward the U.S.S.R. It became more important to oppose the Soviets than to judge policies on their merits. It resulted in one blunder after another, most notably involvement in Vietnam.
Today the Republican Party is suffering from a similar malady. Under twin hammer blows from evangelicals and tea partiers, politics has become polarized. Issues that are really merely programmatic are treated as battles between good and evil. Reflexive opposition to Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular are party policy.
In Congress, GOP legislators who even have lunch with Democrats are regarded as associating with the enemy. The working relationships that once characterized Congress are rare. It’s one of the reasons Edward Kennedy’s death was such a benchmark. His relationships with Republicans, particularly Orrin Hatch of Utah, were relics of the past.
For a long time, it worked for the GOP. In the early days of the Republican alliance with evangelicals, refusal to cooperate with Democrats on issues energized the new party base. But by the time the Tea Party came along, energizing the base alienated the nation.
In only eight weeks since the November 2012 election in which Republican intransigence drove voters to the Democrats, the GOP embrace of polarizing politics has done enormous damage to the party’s policy goals. In the “fiscal cliff” dispute, the party started out with an offer from Obama of a tax hike and major spending cuts and ended up settling for a tax hike and minor spending cuts.
As this is written, Republican leaders are gearing up to oppose appointment of a Republican secretary of defense.
As a case study, consider the current dispute over whether states will set up health insurance exchanges as a part of the Democratic health care plan.
These exchanges were one of the concessions made to Republicans when the plan was working its way through Congress. As Washington and Lee University law professor Tim Jost put it, the idea for the exchanges “comes out of free market advocacy groups and has been endorsed by them in the past.”
But at least 22 Republican governors are refusing to set up the state exchanges because they don’t want to do anything to assist the Democrats on health care. One state where this is going on is Minnesota, where Minnesota Public Radio has reported, “State Republicans are in a tough spot. On one hand, they don’t want to do anything to show support for what they term ‘Obama-care.’ On the other hand, the concept of an insurance exchange is an idea they’ve embraced in the past. Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed one for Minnesota long before Congress passed the federal health care law.”
Nevada’s Gov. Brian Sandoval, incidentally, is not among the recalcitrants. He and state legislators set up an exchange.
In a recent interview with Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brookings Institution fellow Thomas Mann talked about the GOP’s unwillingness to accept its victories: “Obama’s healthcare proposals were designed to avoid the pitfalls of past failures by negotiating with many of the healthcare stakeholders and embracing ideas that had been the centerpiece of past Republican proposals. These included state exchanges to foster competition in private insurance, subsidies for low income households, significant insurance reforms including guaranteed issue and affordability for those with pre-existing conditions, and an individual mandate to encourage universal coverage. But once Obama was for them, Republicans turned against them.”
It’s not as though refusing to set up the exchanges will change anything. All it means is that instead of a state-run exchange, those states will have federally-run exchanges. In other words, the Republicans will have lost another battle by further empowering the feds.
This is doing no one any good. The nation benefits from vigorous debates among parties. Dialogue makes legislation better and serves party needs. When conservative leaders like Jack Kemp, Barry Goldwater and Everett Dirksen were leaders, the party achieved many of its goals and conducted policy debates that laid groundwork for the Reagan period. Today they have been replaced with all-or-nothing figures who employ slogans and sound bites instead of genuine debate to lay the groundwork for Democratic gains and uncooked legislation.
Reflexive opposition instead of rational opposition keeps hurting the nation. It also hurts the GOP itself.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.
In Congress, GOP legislators who even have lunch with Democrats are
associating with the enemy.
relationships that once characterized Congress are rare.”