The Latest Republican Strategy: Ceding the Playing Field

In my last post I argued that the American political landscape has shifted so far to the right in the past few decades that the Democrats under President Obama are now actually a little to the right of where Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon stood half a century ago. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that even the former arch-conservative warrior of the 1960s, Barry Goldwater, would be seen as far too moderate for Republicans today. And Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for President in 1996 stated in an interview this past weekend that he wouldn’t make it in the Republican Party of today.

This shift to the right can be referred to as a “ratchet” effect. As Republicans move further to the right, the Democrats move over to occupy the new “middle” ground. Then, in the next election cycle when Republicans move even further to the right to differentiate themselves from Democrats and their policies, the Democrats once again move to the right to claim the newly vacated “center.” I am not the only one to notice this principle.

Two years ago, Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post:

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonPresident Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.

This past weekend Klein returned to that theme in a new article for The Washington Post when he stated,

Over the last few years, the Republican Party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic Party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative.

Policy Platforms

Klein shows how this has happened in terms of three major policy platforms that he claims have dominated American politics in recent years: 1) a comprehensive health care plan, 2) a cap-and-trade plan to control environmental pollutants, and 3) a realignment of tax rates.

In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans staked out in the early ’90s — and often, well into the 2000s.

1) Consider comprehensive health care:

us_cities_health_careThe individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. … The conservative Heritage Foundation soon had an individual-mandate plan of its own, and when President Bill Clinton endorsed an employer mandate in his health-care proposal, both major Republican alternatives centered on an individual mandate. By 1995, more than 20 Senate Republicans … had sponsored one individual mandate bill or another.

In 2006 Governor Mitt Romney implemented an individual mandate health care plan in Massachusetts. Even Newt Gingrich supported it. However, when a nearly identical health care plan was passed by the Obama administration, Romney, Gingrich and virtually all Republicans denounced it and called for its repeal. Today, Klein notes,

[Republicans have] abandoned every idea even vaguely related to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, they pretty much abandoned all ideas related to universal coverage, or even big expansions of coverage. They decided some of them were downright unconstitutional.

2) With regard to climate change, Klein states,

coal-power-plant-usThere was a time when Republicans were leading the way on ideas to fight climate change [e.g. President George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act of 1990]. The first cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions was introduced into the Senate by Sen. John McCain. The McCain/ Palin ticket included a cap-and-trade plank. Some Republicans, like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, supported a carbon tax.


There’s no serious support in today’s Republican Party for doing anything about climate change. … Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want a cap-and-trade plan or a carbon tax or even money for renewable energy research.

3) With regard to adjusting tax rates, Republican President George H. W. Bush initially resisted tax increases. But he eventually realized that they would be necessary. In his 1990 budget he struck a deal with Democrats composed of roughly half tax increases and half spending cuts. He said at the time,

george-bush-2-300It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement and mandatory program reform, tax revenue increases, growth incentives, discretionary spending reductions, orderly reductions in defense expenditures, and budget process reform.

Today’s Republicans have adamantly rejected George H. W. Bush’s approach to balancing spending reductions with increases in tax revenues. Instead, they raise the mantra of “No new taxes” and insist that all spending reductions come from cuts to entitlements and discretionary spending alone.

Klein also reminds us of the abrupt recent reversal in Republican attitudes toward economic stimulus.

GeorgeWBushHIjoBack in 2008, President George W. Bush pushed for and signed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. In 2009, there were a variety of Republican stimulus plans. Back then, Republicans could believe in deficit-financed stimulus during an economic downturn. Today, that would get you driven out of the party.

What are we to make of these reversals in Republican policy? In his earlier essay, Klein noted that

The normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas fail in practice. But that’s not the case here. These initiatives were wildly successful. Gov. Mitt Romney passed an individual mandate in Massachusetts and drove its number of uninsured below 5 percent. The Clean Air Act of 1990 solved the sulfur-dioxide problem. The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.

Rather, it appears that as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals.

Ceding the Playing Field

As incredible as it sounds, today’s Republicans have abandoned the very economic policies that they once crafted – simply, it would appear, to deprive President Obama of any chance of bi-partisan success. Obama has from the beginning tried to work “across the aisle” in proposing policies that are based on Republican models and could reasonably expect some measure of Republican support. Instead, Republicans have disowned and denounced their own policies, as Klein puts it, “adopting a stance of unified, and occasionally hysterical, opposition” toward Obama and what they claim is the president’s “true” agenda – an agenda which certainly must be radically different from their own traditional policies.

two_party_system_xlargeAs Republicans continue to paint themselves into an increasingly extremist conservative corner, the range of options for the Democrats continues to expand. Although one hears repeated cries from Republicans that Obama is a dangerous radical socialist taking the country in the wrong direction, the President has instead claimed the moderate political center recently abandoned by most Republicans. The Democrats have adopted successful policies implemented by previous Republican administrations and now claim them as their own. While Republicans narrow their base to appeal to “true” conservatives, Democrats become free to expand their base to include many more moderate and independent voters.

It is not difficult to see where this will end. By retreating from the political main stream, the Republican Party is increasingly marginalizing itself and losing credibility. Unless it choses to change direction, it may soon speak for few beyond the radical fringe and cease to be a viable political party.

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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