Party Like It’s 1852 AgainPosted: February 29, 2016
As the cliché goes, history often repeats itself. 1852 marked the effective end of the Whig Party, a political party that had elected four presidents and that generally favored the supremacy of Congress over the presidency, based on the Constitution. It evolved for a while into the Know Nothing Party which was virulently anti-immigrant, especially against Catholic immigrants. Eventually, mostly along regional lines over the issue of slavery, and forged by the Civil War, the modern Republican and Democrat parties emerged.
I am a strong believer in the two-party system. In my lifetime, our country at times has veered right of center and left of center, depending on the election of one party over the other. But I believe that the majority of Americans are moderate and centrist, with tendencies that cause them to lean left or right at various times over differing issues, but in the end, we mostly want to stay in the middle of the road. We stay there without careening blindly over the cliff thanks to our two-party system. It is self-correcting as one party or the other pulls its opponent back towards the middle when things start to get too wacky. I am concerned that we are about to lose that balanced system as it appears to me that the Republican Party is about to self-destruct, much like the Whigs in the mid-19th century, over politicians and policies that no longer fit the main stream. The reasons are many.
Tomorrow is Super Tuesday and by Wednesday morning we may wake up to the inevitability of Mr. Donald Trump (R-Manhattan) as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. There is no need for me to list the many insults he has thrown at various groups around the country or to point out that he has no literate policy in any area of significance to this country other than to build a wall. His nomination will create a dilemma for many main stream Republicans. Support their nominee, chosen by the people and for the people, or not? Whether or not individual voters continue to support him in the general election, he will have destroyed the Republican Party as we know it. Even a cursory look at his statements (it is difficult to call them policies) indicate that he is all over the map on defense, foreign policy, healthcare, taxes, understanding the Constitution, trade, the economy and just about everything else. Few of his pronouncements match long-standing Republican policies. Should he be elected, I am not sure how the rest of the Republican Party will align with his ideas, whether or not the Republicans continue to control both the House and the Senate. (It may be hard for Republicans to hold onto the Senate with Mr. Trump at the top of their ticket.) Those that think Mr. Trump will be better than any Democrat may be in for a rude awakening. Regardless, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party will not continue to exist as we know it today.
Couple the thought of Mr. Trump as president (gasp!) with current events in the House and Senate. In the House of Representatives, the compromise budget hammered out as former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was being driven out of the Congress by his own party is now in jeopardy. The bipartisan agreement on the budget was to make 2016 non-controversial, get the Congress back to the business of running the country, and allow for other issues to get addressed in “regular order.” In the last few days, however, the Republican Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 Tea Party Representatives that caused the revolt that resulted in the government shut down in 2013, are now threatening to do the same thing again this year. They do not plan to follow the budget agreement that all sides thought was in place. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is going to have his hands full dealing with this rebellion, just as Speaker Boehner did before him. In many ways it is a battle within the Congress, among Republicans, as to the future of their party.
In the Senate, not much is getting accomplished. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) seems intent on shutting the government down through inaction. So far, nothing of substance that President Obama put forward has been, or apparently will be, considered. Senator McConnell and his fellow Republicans have moved from just disagreeing with or opposing the president’s policies, to being down right insulting. There are numerous examples as to how they are doing this to a “lame duck” president (for the record, an elected official is a lame duck only after an election where their replacement has been duly elected — not the full last year in office), but let me just throw out a few.
Earlier this month, the president sent his budget plan for fiscal year 2017 to the Congress. Before it officially arrived in the House and Senate, the Republican leadership rejected it in total. Their prerogative of course, but one would think that they should actually take a look at it before rejecting it. However, that was not sufficient in their view. For the first time in 41 years, the Congress did not even provide the courtesy of inviting the budget director to testify before Congress about what was in the plan. The Republican chairs of the respective budget committees announced before the budget was released that they would not invite the director to testify because they were not interested in knowing anything about what was in it.
Another example can be found in the video released last week by Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) where he makes a show of taking President Obama’s plan to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba and wadding it up into a ball and shooting it into the trash can without reading it. One may disagree about the efficacy of closing the prison, but why make it into an insult? (See: Trump, Donald.)
Biggest in the news, and the one that most worries me, is the refusal of the Senate leadership to abide any nomination by the president to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court following the untimely passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. No nominee is named — but they already promise to refuse to provide even the most basic of traditional American political processes and will not meet with the nominee. I have seen the tapes of then Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and then Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) saying during Republican presidential administrations that the president should not be allowed to nominate a justice in their last year as president. Two things come to mind. We seem to be on a giant national play ground so let me use a grade school admonition: two wrongs don’t make a right. More importantly, Senator Obama and Senator Biden never actually stopped a nominee from coming before the Senate. They may have voted against some, but they did not stop them and they certainly did not prevent the process from playing out as it should. If Republicans do not like the nominee, fine. Don’t vote for the person. But to be rude and insulting by refusing to meet with and provide due consideration is ridiculous. It is their job — do it. It is also bad politics. Think about it.
The country is angry and about to nominate Donald Trump as a major party nominee. Much of that anger is directed at the Senate and House for not doing their jobs. It seems that strategically and tactically Senator McConnell is off base. No Republican needs to vote for any nominee (although if qualified, they should follow American tradition and do so) but by not allowing any nominee to be vetted in the Senate, they play right into the Democrat’s hands. Talk about rallying the Democrat’s base — this will do it and probably lead to some incumbent Republican Senators losing their re-election campaigns. Follow the process, use the system to their advantage, keep the seat vacant but do it by following the rules. I am not sure what he is thinking unless he is afraid that some Republicans might actually vote for the president’s nominee if that person is qualified. What a tragedy that would be.
Senator McConnell’s thinking is also short-sighted. To satisfy the base now, he is willing to take a chance on the future. President Obama would likely nominate a moderate to the Supreme Court this year because he knows that is the only way his nominee has any chance at all to be confirmed. What kind of nominee will a President Trump put forward? Does Senator McConnell think that a President Clinton will put up a nominee more to his liking? Hardly. (Fantasy: President Clinton nominates Barack Obama for the empty Supreme Court seat. Now that would be something to behold.) If Senator McConnell wants to see a more moderate nominee, his best chance is now, not after the election. Especially as his argument is that “the people” should have their say — well they will, and both presumptive presidential nominees are surely likely to put forward someone less palatable to the Senate.
(History lesson: Chief Justice John Marshall, perhaps one of the greatest to sit in that chair, was nominated by John Adams in late January 1801 — months after the election of Thomas Jefferson as president. The Senate confirmed him and he took the bench on the 4th of February, one month before President Adams left office. President Jefferson accepted the appointment because the Constitution gives the president and the Senate the power to appoint members of the court. Nothing in the Constitution says anything about “lame ducks” which in this case, both the president and some members of the Senate most certainly were. These are the “Founding Fathers” that so many now refer to as the justification for their actions. These Founding Fathers knew the Constitution, were certainly “originalists,” and guess what?)
Why do I think this is important to Republicans and that they should change their approach? Because taken together, and in conjunction with other similar events and the mood of the nation, the soul of the party is at risk. I worry that the back lash, and continued infighting within the party, will destroy or at least splinter the current Republican Party. Whether that new political entity will be better or worse than what exists now, I certainly cannot say. However, I am concerned about another Know Nothing Party emerging, for however short of a time. Without two strong mainstream political parties, both vibrant and reflecting the core values of our nation, we will lose our way in the middle of the road and careen recklessly off of it and over a cliff.