The Obama Presidency has been a very interesting and dramatic time. During the 2008 elections, the economy went through its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The Arab Spring has erupted across the Middle East, as the populace has gone to the streets to assert its rights against various oppressive governments in the region. Iran continues to cause trouble as it tries to develope the capacity to create nuclear power. In our own country the major political development has been the rise of the Tea Party and the shift in the Republican Party towards the extreme Right. During these past few years, many Progressives have been disappointed at Obama’s attempts at trying to reach a middle ground with Republicans as he tried to pass major legislation on health care, climate change, financial regulations, immigration reform, and economic relief for average Americans going through home foreclosures and unemployment. I have to admit to being disappointed at times too with Obama, though I can’t blame him for trying to reach out to Republicans. It’s tough for me to really judge Obama’s Presidency just because the Republicans in Congress during the past 4 years have been so obstinately opposed to almost every Obama initiative. This has been the result of the efforts by conservatives to marginalize or kick out the moderates in the Republican Party, and the loss of influence of moderate Republicans in the GOP has been bad for both the Republican Party and the political discourse in our country.
During the past 4 years, President Obama has tried various things to try to reach common ground with the Republicans to get bipartisan legislation. In the early part of the health care reform debate, Obama and his officials gave a lot of leeway to Senator Chuck Grassley and the Republicans in the Gang of Six Senators in the Senate Finance Committee to try to come up with a bipartisan health care reform bill. The attempts of bipartisanship on health care reform collapsed when Tea Party activists made a lot of noise during town hall meetings, which scared Senator Grassley away from making any deals with the Democrats.
President Obama had hoped that Senator Dick Durbin would succeed in his decade long effort to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the DREAM Act, which would’ve given legal status to those who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been here for five years, have no criminal record, graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree and who joined the military or attend college. Sadly, the bill was voted down 55 to 41 in December 2010, falling shy of the 60 votes required to limit debate and move forward, essentially killing the legislation for the 2010 congressional session. Almost all of the Republican Senators voted against the bill, including some Republicans who had supported the Dream Act in previous years (like Senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley). Fifty Democrats voted for the Dream Act, along with independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Richard Lugar, Lisa Murkowski and Bob Bennett.
The administration had hoped that the alliance of Senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry would in 2009 produce a compromise climate bill that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman plan has initially included a cap-and-trade plan for emissions allowances, protections for U.S. businesses from unfair competition, protections for consumers and businesses from energy price increases and calls for emissions reductions “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 emission levels” by 2020, the level that President Barack Obama proposed in international climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The partnership fell apart without any action on climate change legislation.
In 2011, Obama entered into tense negotiations with House Speak John Boehner on a compromise deal to reduce the national debt. They initially had a deal, until Boehner faced a revolt from conservative Republican representatives. An article by Jake Sherman & John Breshahan for the September 21, 2011 edition of Politico stated
Wednesday night’s rank-and-file rebuke of GOP leadership — with 48 Republicans bolting on a temporary spending bill — underscored the fact that the House Republican majority is still struggling to find unity on major spending bills. It also showed they still need Democratic votes to help them govern.
The pressure from an angry Speaker John Boehner didn’t work — he even threatened to strip committee assignments. Four dozen Republicans —mostly conservatives — wanted more cuts, and they just said no, creating an uncomfortable scene on the House floor as the funding bill failed on a 195-230 vote. Democrats showed a rare moment of unity in overwhelmingly opposing the continuing resolution, which would keep the government funded through Nov. 18.
…It’s been a tumultuous few months for Republican leaders. Boehner had to back down on his attempt to cut a $4 trillion “grand bargain” with President Barack Obama over the debt-ceiling increase, and later had to back down on a balanced-budget amendment vote in the face of fierce opposition from within his own conference. In the end, Boehner and Obama stood on the sidelines as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put together the framework for the deal that avoided a debt default.
The shift of the Republican Party towards a more conservative direction has been going on since the mid 1960s, when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had his campaign for the Presidency in 1964. The shift towards a more conservative direction took a more decisive turn in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the Presidential elections against Jimmy Carter and began the Reagan Revolution. In the past 3 decades, liberal and moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Pete McCloskey, John Anderson, Jim Jeffords, and Lincoln Chaffee began to disappear from the Republican Party. A partial explanation of the conservative shift in the Republican Party can be found in a June 23, 1996 article entitle Why Today’s Politics Stink, David Broder writes:
“The need for cross-party friendships is even greater now than in the past because the ideological differences between the parties have grown. And in both the House and Senate, a bloodless version of ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been taking place within each party.
For most of the postwar period, Democratic congressional majorities included a kaleidoscope of personalities and views, ranging from Northern liberals like Humphrey, Hart, and McGovern to Southern conservatives like Sam Ervin, John Stennis and Harry Byrd. But the conservative Southern Democrats began to disappear after the civil rights revolution. In the House, some of their seats are now held by African-Americans. But most of the House seats and all of the Senate seats that have switched parties are filled by conservative Republicans. As a result, the center of gravity in the House and Senate Democratic caucuses has moved north and moved left.
Exactly the opposite has been happening to the Republicans. With Southerners now in the top leadership positions in both House and Senate, the congressional GOP is much more uniformly conservative than it was when Dole arrived. And just as conservative Republicans have replaced conservative Democrats in the South, so liberal Democrats have replaced moderate and liberal Republicans who once were numerous in New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the Midwest and the Northwest.
As each party has become more homogeneous in terms of philosophy, there has been less tolerance of dissent. The penalties for deviating from the party line have increased.
The differences of view- even of philosophy- between the parties are genuine. But the press treats these disagreements as if they were narrowly partisan and the public often sees these battles simply as evidence of small minded, churlish behavior- and condemn everyone involved, regardless of party label. The result is a more polarized, less productive Congress- and one which the public has come to despise.”
Even more traditionally conservative Republicans have been challenged by the Tea Party for not being conservative enough and for their willingness to try to find common ground with their Democratic nominees. Senator Bill Bennett of Utah and Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana are two examples of conservative Republicans who were defeated in Republican primaries by conservative voters who favored more partisan candidates. In a May 8, 2012 Huffington Post article by Michael McCauliff, the article describes the difference between Lugar and Richard Mourdock, the candidate who defeated Lugar in the Republican primaries:
Mourdock’s heated rhetoric offered a sharp contrast to a low-key concession by Lugar, who refused to retreat from the idea of working with the other side, implicitly criticizing his rival.
“Serving the people of Indiana in the United States Senate has been the greatest honor of my public life. Hoosiers deserve the best representation possible,” an emotional Lugar said. “They deserve legislators who will listen to their entire spectrum of citizen views and work to achieve consensus. They deserve legislators who each day go to work thinking about how they can solve problems.”
Lugar seemed acutely aware that the right wing of his party had turned its no-surrender approach on him.
“We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now, and these divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas,” Lugar said, using a line that Democrats are likely to repeat going into the fall. “But these divisions are not insurmountable and I believe that people of goodwill, regardless of party, can work together for the benefit of our country.”
While Lugar was gracious in his speech, he released a statement that was far sharper:
“If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.”
Former Governor Jeb Bush has also decried the Republican Party’s growing intolerance of opinions that do not conform to a uniform conservative view. Bush has been especially concerned about the Republican Party’s harsh rhetoric on immigration reform, as he has active in trying to get Republicans to reach out to Hispanic voters. In a June 11, 2012 New York Times article by Jim Rutenberg, the article states:
For the better part of three decades, there has been no more prominent family in Republican politics than the Bushes.
But tough talk about the state of the party on Monday by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida — who went so far as to say that Ronald Reagan and his father would have a “hard time” fitting in during this Tea Party era — exhibited a growing distance between the family, which until not very long ago embodied mainstream Republicanism, and the no-compromise conservative activists now driving the party.
Speaking at a breakfast with national reporters held by Bloomberg View in Manhattan, Mr. Bush questioned the party’s approach to immigration, deficit reduction and partisanship, saying that his father, former President George Bush, and Reagan would struggle with “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”
…friends say it is the party’s shift away from the sort of comprehensive immigration overhaul Mr. Bush had championed during his presidency that particularly pains the Bushes, who, for all of their differences, believe the system should be more humane for hardworking and law-abiding Hispanic families — whom the Republican Party must court to assure its future success. The issue has particular resonance for Jeb Bush, whose wife, Columba, is of Mexican heritage.
“It is a Bush family belief that we have to do more with Hispanic voters,” said a friend of Jeb Bush, Ana Navarro. “But Jeb understands the Republican Hispanic dynamic better than most people do because he speaks the language, he reads and listens to the news coverage, and he lives in the community.”
During the discussion at Bloomberg View, Mr. Bush implored his party: “Don’t just talk about Hispanics and say immediately we must have controlled borders. Change the tone would be the first thing. Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach.”
This points out a sad evolution within the Republican Party. A few decades ago, the Republican Party were actually stronger on issues of civil rights and minority rights than a Democratic Party that was dominated by conservative southern Democrats. The GOP, after all, were the party of Lincoln that fought for the emancipation of slaves and they worked to expand the rights of African Americans through such laws as the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. During this brief period during Reconstruction, the first African American Congressman and Senators were elected to Congress, including such distinguished men as Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Robert Smalls, Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Robert De Large, Robert Brown Elliott, and Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina, and Josiah Walls of Florida. Prominent Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and George Frisbie Hoar spoke out for the rights of African Americans, Native Americans and Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century. This loss of diversity within the Republican Party is noted in an article for the Daily Beast by John Avlon:
Dust off your history books and you will see Republicans once had a virtual lock on the minority vote—and minority elected officials. The legacy of Lincoln was alive and well until not so long ago. Which makes the retreat of recent decades both unfortunate and ill-timed.
Consider that the first popularly elected African-American senator was a Republican, Ed Brooke from Massachusetts, in 1966. Likewise the first Asian-American senator, Hawaii’s Hiram Fong, who was first elected in the Eisenhower era. The first Native-American senator, Charles Curtis—who went on to be Herbert Hoover’s vice president. The first Hispanic senator, Octaviano Larrazolo, also was a Republican. Ditto the first woman popularly elected to the Senate, Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith.
“The Republican Party was the party that gave hope and inspiration to minorities—and there was a coalition at first,” says Ed Brooke, now 92 and living with his wife, Anne, in Miami. “My father was a Republican. My mother was a Republican. They wouldn’t dare be a Democrat. The Democrats were a party opposed to civil rights. The South was all Democratic conservatives. And the African-American community considered them the enemy.”
That’s why every single one of the 23 African-American members of Congress before 1900 was a Republican. They wouldn’t have dreamed of being anything other than members of the Party of Lincoln—Democrats were the party of the Confederate South. Frederick Douglass summed up the sentiment when he said, “I am a Republican, a black, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom.” This legacy echoed for generations.
“When I first went to the Senate there was one woman there, Margaret Chase Smith, who was a Republican,” remembers Brooke. “Of course, I was the only African-American. But there were a couple of Jewish senators—Jacob Javits [a Republican from New York] and Abe Ribicoff [a Democrat] from Connecticut. We had some diversity—racial diversity and [gender] diversity—but it was very small, of course. But we also had a degree of diversity as far as political ideology. We had a group of moderate senators who met for lunch once a week and we had a block of eight that usually voted together on these issues.”
The decline of centrist Republicans was one important reason for the decline in the GOP’s diversity over recent decades, according to Brooke. The shift of the party’s political base to the states of the former Confederacy coincided with the rise of social conservatism and states’ rights in what had been the progressive party in the era of Lincoln. The historic irony of a Southern Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, signing civil rights and voting rights bills into law (which his 1964 opponent Barry Goldwater opposed) solidified the shift of African-Americans into the Democrats’ camp, capped by the election of the first African-American president a half-century later.
Paul Starr wrote an article for the American Prospect magazine on the importance of the moderate Republican. He wrote:
The Republicans, in contrast, have virtually cleansed themselves of moderates and are poised to move the country sharply to the right if they win the 2012 election. The source of the party’s shift is a mysterious death that may be the single most important contemporary political development — the demise of the moderate Republican in national politics.
…By the 1994 election — the second Republican “revolution” of recent decades — the party had moved further to the right. Yet even in the mid-1990s, influential Republican moderates in Congress, particularly in the Senate (including, for example, John Chafee, Arlen Specter, Jim Jeffords, Nancy Kassebaum, and William Cohen), continued to serve as a brake on conservative policy and as partners with a Democratic administration. Without the support of those moderates, Congress would never have enacted the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997.
But with the 2010 election, American politics has entered a new phase. The number of moderate Republicans in Congress has now been so reduced that the old restraints on the party are gone. As a result, in a divided government bipartisan cooperation is more difficult, and if Republicans take control of both Congress and the presidency in 2013, national policy will likely swing even more sharply to the right than it has after previous Republican victories.
…The alternation in power of the two major parties is an inevitable aspect of American politics. American elections hinge largely on the performance of the economy, and things don’t look good now on that score. So, despite the unpopularity of their policy views, the Republicans could win in 2012 and carry out the program long sought by right-wingers to reverse the hard-won social, labor, and environmental protections that the United States has established since the New Deal.
As I look at the developments of the Republican Party of the past 4 years, I have a feeling of increasing concern. This political development has even effect me personally. In my twenties and early thirties, I had several friendships with conservatives where there was a respect for differences of opinions. Since the mid 1990s, however, those friendships have become much more difficult, and I think it has to do with the change in political climate. In the past decade or so, I’ve found myself getting caught up in some exasperating conflicts with individuals and groups who do not respect my right to hold a differing opinion. I’m still willing to reach out a hand of friendship towards a Conservative Republican, but after being burned a few times, I’ve learned to make sure that the individual has the ability to respect different points of views. I’ve encountered a few individuals who think the freedom of speech only applies to people who agree with them.
I do not agree with the views of the Tea Party, but I respect the willingness of the members to get involved in the political process and their persistence in arguing their views to try to persuade the American public. This is something the Left should be doing as well. Conservative Republicans love this country just as much as Liberal Democrats. The conception that Conservative Tea Partiers have on what is best for our country, though, is very different than what Liberals feel is best for this country. The vast ideological gulf between the two sides means that there is not much common ground on many issues between Liberals and Conservatives, and this has been the cause of much of the gridlock in Congress. Without Moderates to make compromises, the Congress will pretty much stay deadlock, unless one party or the other gains strong majorities in both houses of Congress, or if moderate Republicans make some inroads within the Republican Party.
The battles between Democrats and Tea Party Republicans is not new in American history. From the very beginning, there has been partisan battles between Federalists and Republicans, abolitionists and slaveholders, Populists and industrialists, New Deal Liberals and Conservative Republicans, segregationists and integrationists. The debates between these opposing forces was good for the public arena of ideas. The important thing is to maintain the diversity of different views that contribute to the debate on important issues. Liberal voices, conservative voices, moderate voices, radical leftist voices, and libertarian and anarchist voices are all important contributors in the national debate.
I respect the right of Tea Partiers to express their views. But I don’t like the tendency of Tea Partiers to marginalize opinions that do not conform to their own. The efforts of the Tea Party to expel Moderates from the Republican Party is especially worrisome. But I’m hoping that Moderates will eventually reassert themselves for the sake of the Republican Party and the country. Cass R. Sunstein wrote in his book Why Societies Need Dissent :
…I suggest that the American founders’ largest contribution consisted in their design of a system that would ensure a place for diverse views in government. The founding period saw an extraordinary debate over the nature of republican institutions, and in particular over the legacy of Montesquieu. Montesquieu was a revered source for all sides and a central figure in the development of the idea of separation of powers. The antifederalists, eloquent opponents of the proposed Constitution, complained that the framers had betrayed Montesquieu by attempting to create a powerful central government, one that was impossibly ill-suited to American diversity. In their public writings during the debates over whether the Constitution should be ratified, many of the antifederalists urged that a republic could flourish in homogenous areas of like-minded people. An especially articulate antifederalist wrote under the name “Brutus”, in honor of the Roman republican who participated in the assasination of Julius Caesar to prevent Caesar from overthrowing the Roman republic. Brutus spoke for the republican tradition when he told the American people: “In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.”
Advocates of the Constitution believed that Brutus had in exactly backwards. They welcomed the diversity and the “constantly clashing of opinions.” They affirmatively sought a situation in which “the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.” Alexander Hamilton spoke most clearly on the point, urging that the “differences of opinion, and the jarring of parties in (the legislative) department of the government… often promote deliberation and circumspection; and serve to check the excesses of the majority.”
…Diversity, openness, and dissent reveal actual and incipient problems. They improve society’s pool of information and make it more likely that serious issues will be addressed. I do not deny that great suffering can be found in democracies as in elsewhere. There is no guarantee, from civil liberties alone, that such suffering will be minimized. One reason is unequal distribution of political power, which decrease the likelihood that important information will actually reach public officials and that such officials will have the proper incentive to respond to suffering. But at least it can be said that a society which permits dissent and does not impose conformity is in a far better position to be aware of, and to correct, serious social problems.
A video discussion between Mike Papantonio and John Nichols, Washington Correspondent for The Nation Magazine, on the decline of the Moderate Republican
Geoffrey Kabaservice, Roosevelt House Visiting Fellow and author of the recent book, “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party” talks about the roots of the decline of Moderate and Liberal Republicans
Olympia Snowe talks about how she didn’t have a lot of company as a moderate in Congress
Suhail Kahn, former Bush administration official and board member of American Conservative Union, talks about the concern of Muslim Republicans of the Islamophobia within the Republican Party
Hispanic Republicans debate fellow Republicans against SB1070
Senator Dick Durbin endorsing the Dream Act and criticizes Republicans who had previously supported the Dream Act. Senator Inouye also voices his support of the Dream Act
Immigrant Activists protesting Republican offices in 2010 in Chicago
CNN’s Don Lemon talks to R. Clarke Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans about GOP policies toward gays