The Bigger Picture
Published on December 15th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
The lesson Republicans need to take away from their resounding midterm election victory over Congressional Democrats is that the independent voters, who swung the election in their favour, expect them to work with the President and Democrats to address America’s fiscal and economic problems. But Republican political leaders also tightly embraced the Tea Party movement in the process of winning those midterm elections; thus leaving themselves with very little room to maneuver in striking compromises with the President and Democrats in Congress.
In other words, what the Tea Party has given; the Tea Party can also take away! So I believe over the course of the next two years, Republicans in Congress are going to find it extremely difficult if not impossible to work with President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate, precisely because ‘compromise’ is a dirty 10 letter word for members of the Tea Party movement. Members of the Tea Party movement believe that compromise is a sign of weakness and the demagogues who lead them have so thoroughly vilified President Obama and the Democrats, that compromise will be viewed as tantamount to ‘making a deal with the devil.’
But the reality of politics in a true democracy is that it is all about the art of compromise. Dictators and governments in single party states don’t have to concern themselves with making compromises because those who oppose them not only don’t have a voice in the decisions they make, they also don’t have the legal right to challenge or reverse government policies. Democracies on the other hand are somewhat messier when it comes to policy making. Because their legislatures are designed to represent the conflicting views of many different segments of their societies, the ruling party usually lacks the votes to pass their proposals intact.
This is especially true in the United States where laws can be approved by a simple majority vote in the US House of Representatives, but then must also be approved by a larger 3/5ths majority vote in the US Senate. If the proposed new laws can surmount these hurdles then they must also win the approval of the US President before they can be implemented. But if the US President decides to veto a new law, it must then go back to the House of Represenatitives and be approved by at least a 2/3rds majority vote instead of a simple majority vote before it can become the ‘law of the land.’ The requirements for a ‘super majority’ of votes in the Senate to get a bill to the President for his approval, and an even larger ‘super majority’ of votes in the House if the President doesn’t like a law, is one of the unique features of American democracy.
While there have been times during America’s history when either the Democratic or Republican Party controlled both the House and the Senate as well as the Presidency, this kind of political dominance by a single political party has become increasingly rare during the last fifty years. But another complication is that unlike most other democracies, elected politicians in America are more attuned to the interests of their local voters and the special interest groups that fund their political campaigns, than they are to the dictates of their respective political parties.
Herein lies the another unique feature of American democratic politics; voters in each state and Congressional district decide who will stand for election as their Republican or Democratic Party candidate, not the national, state and local party leaders. Furthermore, in many states Democratic and or Republican primaries are not even restricted to party members, but are open to all voters, be they Republicans, Democrats or Independents. Therefore, believe it or not, in some states Republicans can actually vote for the Democratic Party candidate and vice versa
So given the fact that political candidates must also fund their campaigns to win their party’s nomination without any money from the party itself, and if they succeed then provide the majority of the funds they need to win the general election, is it any wonder that they are more loyal to their local constituencies than they are to their national political party? Truth be known, the only real leverage the Republican and Democratic parties have on their candidates is deciding how much or little additional funding to give them for the general election, and if they get elected, the only remaining leverage they have is deciding the congressional committees to put them on.
The inevitable consequence of weak party loyalty in America is difficulty keeping your elected party members in line when crucial votes are needed to pass legislation. As a result, the art of compromise usually begins with negotiations between members of the same political party. After this process has played out, the party leaders then try to negotiate with members of the opposing party that they believe can be persuaded to join them in passing this legislation. While members of the Tea Party movement disapprove of the ‘back room deals’ that are made during these negotiations, they are an integral and important part of democratic political governance.
Lacking any true national leader following John McCain’s defeat in the 2008 Presidential elections, the Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and Republican House minority leader, John Boehner, became the Republican Party’s de facto leaders in Washington DC. Given the continuing economic malaise in America, party leaders correctly calculated that the remaining Republican Party members in Congress had more to gain by locking arms and opposing everything President Obama and the Democrats proposed to address America’s domestic problems.
They succeeded in preventing Democrats from passing additional legislation designed to stimulate the economy and reduce joblessness, but also avoided being blamed for their role in slowing America’s economic recovery. So given the short term success of this strategy and the Tea Party movement’s opposition to compromise, I just don’t see any compelling reason for Republicans to compromise with Obama between now and the 2012 Presidential election.