The Man Behind Trump’s Throne

President Donald Trump Signs Executive OrdersThe media has reported extensively on the flurry of activity surrounding Donald Trump’s first week in office.  But perhaps “flurry” is not the right meteorological analogy.  To myself and many others it seems more like a destructive hurricane.

So many unprecedented events filled the news cycle this week, that is it impossible to comment on them all.  For those who wish a refresher, this brief summary from British television should suffice. Overall, it provides a rather chilling tally not only of a long-anticipated right-wing wish list, but also of actions to curtail civil liberties and democratic freedoms including the freedom of dissent, information and expression.

As noteworthy as these events have been – many of them gathering considerable media attention – what has been going on behind the scenes is even more important in the long run, And unfortunately, this has not been given near the attention it deserves.

trump-appointeesAs the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet appointees has revealed, there is considerable daylight between some of their positions and those of Trump himself.  Politico reported this week that to ensure they do not stray from Trump’s own agenda,

The White House is installing senior aides atop major federal agencies to shadow the administration’s Cabinet secretaries, creating a direct line with loyalists who can monitor and shape White House goals across the federal bureaucracy.

voalogoThen there is Donald Trump’s so-called “war” with the media.  Things are falling into place for him to erect his own tightly controlled alternative to the public media.  In mid-December the newly-convened Congress passed legislation to abolish the independent body that oversees government-backed media outlets like Voice of America, replacing it with a chief executive named by the President and approved by the Senate. As Politico reported this week,

On the first Monday of his administration, Trump, who has flirted with the idea of launching his own TV network, deployed two “transition officials” who will evaluate the managers and studios of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

Many people are not aware that legislation passed in 2013 now permits these government-funded outlets to broadcast to American audiences as well as to those in other countries.   Throughout the cold war, the Voice of America was the official propaganda arm of the U. S. government, and some people within this organization are now concerned that it may be turned into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Trump administration.

trump-and-mediaNote that this comes on the heels of Trump railing against CNN and Buzzfeed as “fake news” at his first official press conference, his press secretary Sean Spicer attacking the news media the day after the election for not backing Trump’s false claims on the size of the inauguration crowd, and Trump himself launching a similar attack on the public media during his visit to the CIA headquarters, calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”  The next day Trump’s chief White House Strategist, Stephen Bannon, called the media “the opposition party, and stated that “It should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The following day Trump said that he fully concurred with Bannon’s view.

The Bannon Factor

This kind of rhetoric is completely unprecedented, and one might well wonder what is behind it.  The source of this animosity toward the mainstream media does not seem to originate with either Donald Trump or his Press Secretary Sean Spicer (or even his chief spokesperson and surrogate Kellyanne Conway).  All the evidence points to it originating with Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

bannon-and-trumpAs Michael Gyrnbaum explained in the New York Times this week,

Among Mr. Trump’s advisers in the White House, Mr. Bannon is responsible for putting into action the nationalist vision that Mr. Trump channeled during the later months of the campaign, one that stemmed from Mr. Bannon himself. And in many ways Mr. Trump has acted on that vision during his first week in office — from the description of “American carnage” he laid out in his inauguration speech to a series of executive actions outlining policies on trade agreements, immigration and the building of a border wall.

Mr. Bannon is one of the strongest forces in an administration with competing power centers. A savvy manipulator of the press, and a proud provocateur, he was among the few advisers in Mr. Trump’s circle who were said to have urged Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, to give a confrontational, emotional statement to a shocked West Wing briefing room on Saturday, when the White House disputed news reports about the size of the inauguration crowd.

A very revealing article in Axios this week reveals the extent of Bannon’s influence in the Trump administration (along with policy guru Stephen Miller):

  • They wrote the Inaugural speech and set in fast motion a series of moves to cement Trump as an America-first Nationalist.
  • They maneuvered to get more key allies inside the White House and positioned for top agency jobs.
  • Theywrote many of the executive orders, sometimes with little input from others helping with the transition.
  • They egged on Trump to take a combative approach with the media, China, Mexico and critics.
  • And Bannon punctuated the week with a full-throated, Trump-pleasing bashing of the media.

Just how small this group of decision-makers is was revealed this week is a series of reports stating that

trumo-executive-order2-jpgPresident Donald Trump’s team made little effort to consult with federal agency lawyers or lawmakers as they churned out executive actions this week, stoking fears the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.

For example,

The White House didn’t ask State Department experts to review Trump’s memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline

And

Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were “blindsided” by a draft order that would require agencies to reconsider using interrogation techniques that are currently banned as torture

In addition,

Just a small circle of officials at the Department of Health and Human Services knew about the executive action starting to unwind Obamacare, and only less than two hours before it was released. Key members of Congress weren’t consulted either, according to several members. And at a conference in Philadelphia, GOP legislators say they had no idea whether some of the executive orders would contrast with existing laws — because they hadn’t reviewed them.

This was especially true with regard to Trump’s executive order limiting the entry of refugees into the U.S. issued this past Friday.  Politico reported that

When President Donald Trump declared at the Pentagon Friday he was enacting strict new measures to prevent domestic terror attacks, there were few within his government who knew exactly what he meant.

Administration officials weren’t immediately sure which countries’ citizens would be barred from entering the United States. The Department of Homeland Security was left making a legal analysis on the order after Trump signed it.

Furthermore,

It wasn’t until Friday — the day Trump signed the order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days — that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details of the order.

stephen-bannon3It is completely unheard of for the Executive office to not vet its executive orders with the Department of Justice or to keep its Cabinet officers and department heads in the dark about them until after they are proclaimed.  Stephen Bannon along with a tiny group within Trump’s circle of trusted advisors are in many cases drafting these articles without proper consultation with the offices that must implement them.  It is the kind of unilateral (even dictatorial) action that President Obama was (without justification) frequently accused of taking, but which is quickly becoming a hallmark of the Trump Administration.

Since the inauguration, Stephen Bannon has been busy consolidating his influence within Trump’s inner circle with the facilitation of Trump himself. On Friday Donald Trump issued an executive order restructuring the National Security Council, creating a new position installing Stephen Bannon on the Council alongside the Secretary of Defense (James “Mad Dog” Mattis) and Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson). At the same time, the Director of National Intelligence (Dan Coats) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Joseph Dunford) are being shunted to the side and will henceforth only attend committee meetings that pertain to their “specific responsibilities and expertise.”  David Ferguson notes that while serving on the council “Bannon will be privy to some of the country’s most highly classified military and intelligence secrets.”

By way of contrast, Tillerson will assume his position as Secretary of State in a very weakened position.  On Wednesday it was announced that the entire State Department Management Team had been fired by the Trump administration.  As Allegra Kirkland reported for Talking Points Memo,

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry, told the newspaper. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”

This leaves Stephen Bannon as the second most powerful person in the Trump administration next to the Donald Trump himself.  It has been reported that he sits in on all of Trump’s phone calls with international leaders, and has a direct hand in all major decisions.

Who is Stephen Bannon?

stephen-bannon2

Sixty-three year old Stephen Bannon was a founding member of Breitbart News, an extremist right-wing online news service dominated by provocative reporting and “fake news.”  Upon Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon became its Editor-at-Large. As David Ferguson explains, Bannon

presided over the expansion of Breitbart.com from a fringe right-wing web community to a sprawling hub of the so-called “alt-right,” a collection of white nationalists, racists, anti-feminists and neo-Nazis.

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, described Bannon as a “pathological liar who has a temperament that governs by bullying and intimidation.” And as Ben Shapiro, a former staff member at Breitbart, writes,

Bannon has goals. One of those goals is maximization of personal power, which is why he spent the last decade and a half glomming onto powerful right-wing personalities … and then moving on up the chain. With [Andrew] Breitbart and Trump, he picked two winners in a row – and that means he’s now at the pinnacle of American power.

So, what will he do with that power? He’ll target enemies. Bannon is one of the most vicious people in politics. … [M]ore importantly, Bannon’s interested in turning the Republican Party into a far-right European party.

Bannon’s personal agenda was further clarified by Ronald Radosh on the day after Trump’s inauguration when he related a conversation he had with Bannon at a social gathering back in 2013.  In their conversation, rather describing himself as a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed, “I’m a Leninist.” He quickly clarified that by this he did not mean that not mean that he was a communist (he was most certainly not), but rather that he saw himself as a radical revolutionary.

“Lenin,” he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

By “all of today’s establishment” he meant the traditional establishment parties – both Democratic and Republican – as well as the traditional conservative press.

Donald Trump found in the Breitbart press managed by Bannon exactly the kind of anti-establishment message that appealed to him.  Bannon became one of Trump’s most trusted allies in waging his own public war against the existing political “establishment,” and Trump soon brought him into his inner circle.  When Trump’s Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after his lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs became public, Trump turned to Bannon, naming him as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.”

In November The Hill reported that although Bannon is best known for his populist nationalist views on domestic issues such as immigration, he is also “fascinated with the military and global affairs.”

Bannon admires right-wing nationalists and hard-line illegal immigration opponents in Europe and elsewhere. He wants to work more closely with them and sees them as part of a worldwide movement to overthrow the “globalists,” according to multiple sources familiar with his thinking.

Bannon is a longtime skeptic of international alliances like the United Nations and the European Union. He cheered on Brexit — the decision made by British voters in a June referendum to leave the EU — and he admires French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

stephen-bannon1This may be the first time that an actual agent provocateur has held a key position within an American administration.  Donald Trump trusts Stephen Bannon implicitly, and has given him access to all aspects of administrative responsibilities.  As Trump’s chief strategist he is responsible for rolling out the president’s executive orders, his media events, and his public pronouncements.  He is both the gate keeper and the initiator operating behind the scenes.  Everything that Trump does passes through his hands and is shaped by his counsel.

One ultimately has to ask, who is really in charge of the presidency?  Donald Trump the showman?  Or Stephen Bannon the presence behind the throne?

Photo credits: Gerald Herbert/AP; Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images; Reuters; Christine Frapech – AP/Newseum; Joshua Roberts/Reuters; ABC News; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Alex Brandon / AP

Suppressing the Vote

In my previous blog [Getting Out the Vote] I presented evidence showing that typical non-voters (those who are young, belong to racial and ethnic minorities, and are poor) tend to have more liberal and progressive views than those who actually turn out to vote.

This led to the conclusion that

when typical non-voters become mobilized, they can have a significant impact on both national and state policies.

Various studies were cited showing this to be the case.

My concluding observation in that blog was that

Of course, there are some who have a vested interest in keeping this from happening.

It is now time to address that issue.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama speaks to supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in NashuaIn 2008 younger and ethnically diverse Americans mobilized in large numbers to vote for a junior senator named Barack Obama. He was swept into office on a platform of “hope” and “change,” and promised much more progressive policies than the previous administration. His electoral victory reflected many of the aspirations of this normally unrepresented (or underrepresented) segment of the American public. If they had not rallied around him in such large numbers, he would not have been elected.

Conservatives responded with an orchestrated campaign to keep this newly elected president from achieving any of his goals. They also soon began an orchestrated campaign to keep to this new contingent of voters who had put him in office from doing so again. If Republicans could not win the support of the traditional non-voters who were now turning out to vote, they would have to limit the participation of this group in future elections.

defund ObamacareIn the 2010 midterm elections the traditional conservative base was whipped into a frenzy in opposing Obama’s signature piece of legislation – the Affordable Care Act. They turned out in strong numbers to oppose Obama and defeat Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, the contingent of Obama’s youthful, racially diverse supporters from 2008 failed to materialize in the 2010 “off-year” election. Republicans not only took back the House of Representatives, but also took control of many state legislatures and governorships.

Emboldened by their sizeable gains, especially at the state level, Republicans began to put forward legislation to restrict voters from this decidedly pro-Obama demographic group from voting in future elections. Writing in Talking Points Memo in January 2014, Tova Andrea Wang states that

Following the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans made major gains across the country, a tsunami of bills were introduced that were clearly designed to throw up obstacles to voting for traditionally Democratic constituencies: African Americans, low income people, immigrants, among others.

Show IDThis legislation mainly focused on what are commonly referred to as Voter ID laws. In its formal report on “Voting Law Changes in 2012” the Brennan Center for Justice stated that large Republican gains in the 2010 midterms turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.”

In the year 2011 legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo IDs. In states that already had existing voter ID laws, lawmakers toughened the statutes, often requiring proof of photo identification. Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania passed the toughest legislation not allowing voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing a valid photo ID.

Voter ID lawsAccording to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog estimated that these restrictions could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent – enough to reverse the outcome of any close electoral race.

Prominent Republican officials championed these laws. In a much quoted statement, Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, praised the the Pennsylvania legislature for passing its new law, saying, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

More laws went into effect after June 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court in struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain areas, such as states in the South, to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, stated, “We haven’t seen a legislative movement like this since Reconstruction”

Some of those laws were later struck down as unconstitutional, but many others still stand. [Go here to see a descriptive listing of these laws as of May 2014.] At present, 22 states have voter restriction laws that still stand and can be used to shift the outcome in tight electoral races.

let the people voteThe respected academic journal Perspectives on Politics contained a report in its December 2013 issue by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien entitled, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” In analyzing “the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation” through 2011, the authors state,

Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments.

Their analysis shows that

in those states where there were a larger percentage of minority voters … , the number of laws restricting voting rights proposed by lawmakers also went up. Similarly, in those states where the percentage of low-income voters rose, the response was to propose more laws making it harder to vote. In those states with a bigger African-American population, more restrictive legislation also passed and became law.

They also found that in the states where Republicans dominated the legislature the most, there the most restrictive voting laws were passed. Furthermore, “in ‘swing states,’ where Republicans feared losing power, Republican lawmakers responded by passing lots of laws to make voting harder in 2011.”

In reviewing this research article, Harold Pollack of the Washington Monthly concluded that

Republican governors and legislatures have sought to hinder minority turnout for partisan purposes. States were especially likely to pass restrictive voting laws if Republicans were politically dominant, but [also] where the state observed rising minority turnout or where the state was becoming more competitive in the national presidential race.

A later study from the University of Southern California similarly concluded that

“discriminatory intent underlies legislative support for voter identification laws.”

The Campaign against “Voter Fraud”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL MOVIEThe rational given for these restrictive voting laws was that they were necessary to prevent “voter fraud.” And yet voter fraud has been found to be extremely rare

A Justice Department study found that between 2002 and 2005, just 40 voters (out of 197 million votes cast for federal candidates) were indicted for voter fraud, and just 26 resulted in convictions or guilty pleas.

A more recent study by political scientists at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin similarly found that

virtually all the major scholarship on voter impersonation fraud – based largely on specific allegations and criminal investigations – has concluded that it is vanishingly rare, and certainly nowhere near the numbers necessary to have an effect on any election.

In July of this year Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post provided a comprehensive overview of “7 papers, 4 government inquiries, 2 news investigations and 1 court ruling proving voter fraud is mostly a myth.”

Also in July 2014 Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola University Law School and an expert in constitutional law with a particular focus on election administration and redistricting, reported on his own exhaustive review of voter fraud cases saying,

I’ve been tracking allegations of fraud for years now, including the fraud ID laws are designed to stop. In 2008, when the Supreme Court weighed in on voter ID, I looked at every single allegation put before the Court. And since then, I’ve been following reports wherever they crop up.

So far, I’ve found about 31 different incidents (some of which involve multiple ballots) since 2000, anywhere in the country.

To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents [arise from] general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.

Fraud Concept - Magnifying Glass.It’s time for everyone to understand that voter ID laws aren’t really about preventing fraud. They are about keeping certain people from becoming eligible to vote. Voter ID laws require a person to present an approved state issued form of ID when they appear at a polling station so that they cannot impersonate another person when they vote. However, the vast majority of these laws do nothing to prevent people from mailing in fraudulent ballots, which is the most common form of voter fraud. But the designers of these laws do not sem to be overly concerned about that.

As Sarah Childress reported in October 2014,

A FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide found that only six of the 31 states that require ID at the polls apply those standards to absentee voters, who are generally whiter and older than in-person voters. …

In 2012, nearly half, or 46 percent, of mail-in voters were aged 60 and older, and more than 75 percent were white, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who tracks demographic trends in voting. Older white Americans generally are more likely to vote Republican.

[On the other hand,] African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are less likely to use mail-in ballots.

African-Americans tend to show up at the polls in person, often coming in groups bussed in from their churches to cast their ballots in advance on the Sunday before the election. Curiously, many states governed by Republican administrations have moved to eliminate advance polling on these Sundays.

It is also difficult for many poorer Americans to obtain these required voter IDs. As Childress reports,

African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to lack one of these qualifying IDs … . Even when the state offers a free photo ID, these voters, who are disproportionately low-income, may not be able to procure the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one.

She notes that

Six of the 16 states that have passed voter ID laws since 2010 have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters. All but one of those states’ laws were put in place after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required them to seek approval from the Justice Department for any voting-law changes (emphasis added).

Voter-ID-protestThe unpleasant fact is that these voter ID laws as they have been implemented are discriminatory against the poor, who often are Hispanic or African-Americans, and who tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. Robert Levine, along with many others, has called it a new “poll tax” on the poor. He explains that,

Poll taxes had been in effect prior to the Civil War, with all male citizens having to pay a fee in order to vote. However, post-Civil War, the tax was selectively aimed at disenfranchising black citizens, as they were too poor to pay the fees. Similarly, since most of the former slaves had little if any education, and the school systems for blacks were generally inadequate after they were freed, literacy tests were merely a means to prevent them from casting ballots in states where whites controlled all the levers of power. Mississippi initiated the literacy tests in 1890, with other Southern states following their lead. It wasn’t until the 24th Amendment passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that poll taxes and literacy tests were declared illegal and new ways to disenfranchise minorities had to be found.

Thus, the latest iteration, voter ID laws that have been passed in the red states where the legislatures and governorships are in Republican hands. The supposed rationale for these laws is to prevent voter fraud and to encourage voter turnout. But the real … reason these laws have been passed is to curb voting by minorities, older and disabled people, and hourly workers, most of whom tend to vote Democratic. There are a higher percentage of people among these groups who do not have driver’s licenses or special IDs and it is difficult for many of these people to get the necessary IDs because they don’t drive, don’t have the necessary funds, or can’t get time off from work.

There is much more that could be reported. I have not even mentioned the attempts to restrict voting among college students or the fact that due to incredibly high incarcerations rates for African-Americans, 1 in 13 Blacks are legally prohibited from voting.

Returning to the point made earlier: afraid of losing control, Republicans have mounted a concerted attempt to keep youth, racial minorities and the poor from being able to vote in elections. It is, in my view, a desperate measure, and it is shameful. This is America, where everyone should be given an equal opportunity to vote.

Photo credits: Reuters; Corbis; Pat Carter (AP); Marc Levy (AP)

7 Takeaways from the U.S. Midterm Elections

Americans votingThe 2014 U.S. mid-term elections are being portrayed as a huge win for Republicans and a stinging defeat for Barack Obama and the Democrats. But closer analysis shows other significant factors at play that helped determine the outcome of this election.

  1. House Gains

It is an established fact that the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in the mid-term elections. In the last 19 mid-term elections (since 1938) the president’s party has lost an average of 4 seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House. At the last report, the Democrats have lost 12 seats in the House with 7 still undecided. That is a fairly small number.

GerrymanderingOf course, the Republicans already had a sizeable majority in the House so there were not too many additional contested seats for them to pick up. Thanks to extensive gerrymandering after the 2010 elections, 85% of the seats in the House were considered to be “safe” for Republicans.

In the 2012 election gerrymandering meant that although Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than republican candidates in the House elections, the Democrats secured only 201 seats compared to the 234 seats that went to Republicans.

Prior to the mid-term election, Lee Fang, a political researcher for Moyers and Company, forecast that

As the results from this year roll in, we see a similar dynamic [to 2012]. Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the GOP.

  1. Senate Gains

The real contest, of course was for control of the Senate. If one looks the map of Senate seats up for grabs this election cycle one immediately notices that the seats are heavily concentrated in the American Midwest and the South – traditionally very conservative areas of the country.

Absent from this mix are many of the Pacific and Western and the Northeastern states which tend to be more liberal. In other words, the majority of Senate seats to be decided on were predisposed to go to Republicans regardless of the candidates involved.

Senate election mapSo far the Republicans have picked up 7 seats, with 2 more still to be decided. The Louisiana run-off is almost sure to go the Republican candidate, so let’s call it a gain of 8 for sure. How does this compare to other years?

For the president’s party the loss was as just great as that for Bill Clinton in 1994 and for Ronald Reagan in 1986, but it still pales in comparison to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s loss of 13 Senate seats in 1958 and Harry Truman’s loss on 11 seats in 1946.

The expected wave of Republican victories has been touted as a tsunami by some political pundits. It was certainly a victory wave. But a major tsunami? Hardly. Both parties have undergone more sweeping changes in other years.

  1. Lower Voter turnout

midtermTurnoutIt is an established fact that voter turnout is much lower in midterm elections than in presidential elections – as much as 10 to 15 percent lower. In recent midterm elections less that 40 percent of the eligible population has voted. [Steven S. Smith, The American Congress, Cambridge University Press (2013), p. 86.] This year it was only about 36 percent.

Of those who voted, 70% were white Americans who, more than any other demographic group, tend to vote Republican. Since 2010 many Republican-held states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that have been shown to disproportionally exclude poor, black and Hispanic voters. [See the very informative interactive posting from PBS’s Frontline website: Why Doesn’t Everyone Have a Voter ID?] Members of these are groups that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Did these voter restrictions affect the election results? The data is still being analyzed, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice the number of voters impacted by these new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for the senate and state governors in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida.

  1. Lower voter motivation

Supporters cheer as U.S. President Obama speaks during a campaign event in Columbus, OhioIn both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections Obama received his strongest support from young people, women, blacks and Hispanics. Those demographic groups were noticeably absent from this year’s mid-term election.

Many have speculated that this was because of disappointment with President Obama’s performance over the past 6 years. There is certainly some truth to this.

Obama has not been able to get legislation passed through Congress to lessen the burden of student debt or raise the minimum wage, which affects many younger wage earners. He has been noticeably slow to speak out on women’s reproductive rights and equal pay issues for women. He has been remarkably silent on issues of racism, consistently trying to avoid “the race card.” And he has backed off sweeping immigration reform, an issue that is of great concern to Hispanic voters.

The president knows that if he presses for movement in any of these areas Republicans will attack him without mercy, and the entire Democratic Party will suffer as a result. So he has tried to steer a moderate (non-offensive) very “presidential” course. But it has not saved him or his party.

Obama a disaserThe campaign ads in his election cycle have attacked Obama at every turn, accusing him, not of being ineffective or weak as a president, but of being dangerous, dictatorial, and un-American. He has been vilified along with every one of his early accomplishments – especially the Affordable Care Act.

Anything connected with Obama has become poisoned, and Democratic candidates in this election cycle knew it. They were forced to distance themselves from him. In close contests they sent the message that they didn’t want him around. Once again negative campaigning proved to be more effective than any positive message could ever hope to be.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It brought out the conservative base of voters who felt they had to stop Obama and his agenda at all costs, and it put the Democratic candidates on the defensive.

  1. Biased Reporting

Press-conference.-TV-cameras.-July-9-2014The Republican attack machine effectively defined the message in this election cycle, and the Democrats were unable to get traction with any message of their own. In an article on The Hill, Democratic strategist Doug Thornell is quoted as complaining,

“Over the last year Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class, and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or has been drowned out by outside events” [most recently by ISIS and the ebola scare].

That started me thinking. Why didn’t the Democrats’ message find traction with American voters? Polls have shown that the top issues among all voters are (in decreasing order): Jobs, health care, the budget deficit, education, domestic security, and immigration.

The perennial Republican favourites of abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control don’t even make the list. So why weren’t Democratic candidates able to rally voter support on these priorities? Why didn’t their message get through?

ISIS ebola disappearThe answer, I believe, lies in how much media coverage was given to positive assessments of these issues and how much coverage was given to negative coverage or to other issues instead (neglecting these issues completely).

Conservatives repeatedly claim that there is a “liberal bias” in the media. But if the national media really does have a liberal bias, the airwaves should have been filled with this positive message favouring the administration and the Democratic candidates.

I’m not talking about campaign ads here. I’m talking about real news coverage. But I strongly suspect that this was not the dominant message. I suspect that one didn’t have to search very hard to find an outpouring of negative assessments of Obama’s policies and the core issues identified in the Democratic platform. That pretty much squelches claims of the media’s “liberal” bias.

  1. Opposition to Obama

Finally, the following question needs to be asked: Were these mid-term elections really about voting for Republican candidates or voting against Obama?

In Canada we have seen our Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper skilfully destroy two successive opposition leaders by quickly establishing a negative narrative that defined them in the media and that they were never able to get out from under. It destroyed their leadership ability and the electorate’s confidence in them, and ultimately it destroyed both their political careers.

ObamaScareRepublicans have been doing this from day one with Obama. They have denounced everything he has attempted to do, they have obstructed his agenda at every turn, they have made it nearly impossible to get anything done, and then have criticized him for not accomplishing anything.

Republicans have aggressively defined the narrative about Obama and he has not been able to shake it. Even his fellow Democrats had to run from it in their most recent campaigns. Their tactic succeeded.

It has been widely reported in the media that Obama’s approval rating has now “plummeted” and “plunged to new lows.” Yet when one averages all the various polls one finds that his overall approval rate fell from 42.6% on January 1, 2014 to (wait for it) 42% on October 30, 2014. That’s 0.6% – hardly a precipitous decline.

Obama’s lowest approval rating was 39%. This, by the way, is still higher than the lowest rating of any president since John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan once hit 35% and George W. Bush once hit just 19%. Nevertheless, the narrative has become firmly established, and many Americans believe that Obama is more unpopular than any previous president.

  1. A Cautious Warning for Conservatives

Narratives, once established become hard to shake. But here is another narrative for the Republicans to consider as they prepare to lead the House and the Senate for the next two years.

According to a Rasmussen Reports national survey published on October 28, 2014 only 8% of likely U.S. voters thought that Congress was doing a good or excellent job, while 62% rated Congress’ performance as poor. A separate Ramsussen poll published on August 27, 2014, showed that John Boehner remains Congress’ most unpopular leader. Those perceptions will be hard to shake.

Do-nothing CongressAre we to expect that this (until now) “do-nothing” obstructionist Congress will actually decide to start governing constructively? It seems to me very unlikely that the Republican majority of both houses of Congress will try to reach a compromise with Obama to get their legislation passed into law. Instead I expect they will seize their newfound majority to pass a host of legislation that they know Obama will not approve of just to see him veto it. And, of course, they will loudly criticize him for doing so.

Until now harry Reid has acted as a “shield” for Obama in keeping unpopular legislation from passing through the Senate, thus deflecting attention away from the president himself. Now Obama will be much more exposed. I expect the Republicans to make the most of it. Conservative House members will certainly be clamouring to see new versions of the stalled bills they had previously approved now pass through the Senate.

What is going to be Republican members’ highest priority – to work with Obama in getting legislation passed, or to finally “take Obama down”? I suspect the latter.

Here is a short list of what we might see happen in the next session of Congress:

  • The Tea Party will flex its muscles once again. House members will renew their demands that Obamacare be repealed and/or defunded. They can’t afford to abandon this tactic, as to do so would enrage their conservative base and expose them to being ‘primaried’ out of the next election
  • Impeachment proceedings will begin against Obama on some contrived charge (abusing his executive powers, perhaps). There will be no legal case for these charges, but Republicans have trumpeted this cause enough that they will be unable to back away from it. Their reputations are at stake.
  • Factions will emerge challenging the leadership of both John Boehner in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. Both will survive, but it will leave the party membership fractured.
  • Certain prominent members (Ted Cruz and others) will push their own agendas as they seek to increase their profiles in preparation for a run for the President’s office in 2016. This may conflict with the agendas of the House and Senate leaders causing additional tensions.

113 Congress1The perception of serious dysfunction in Congress is likely to continue over the next two years. Blame can fall in either of two ways. If Obama gets blamed for “obstinacy” and “obstructionism” – well, he is on his way out anyway and the Democrats will get to promote a fresh face and a different approach. But if the sitting members of Congress are the ones judged to be obstinate and obstructive, they will be the ones facing an angry electorate in 2016.

The 2016 election will not be nearly as easy for the Republicans to win. That large voter base that stayed home from this year’s election will be out again to vote for a new president. And Republicans are not likely to gain any more traction with younger voters, women, and racial minorities that they did last time.

The Senate seats in play this time were disproportionately from conservative states. Next time the West Coast and New England States will favour Democratic wins. And so far polls show Hillary Clinton still leading any potential Republican nominee by double digits.

The significant gains in the 2014 election were sweet for the Republicans, but they will no doubt be quite short-lived.

Credits: Courtney Collins, The Associated Press, Postmedia News; Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters; Dan Wasserman, Tribune Media Services

Republican Party Splintering?

Is there a crack developing in the Republican block? Do I detect signs of it splintering?

The recent Republican primaries provide some fascinating insights into dissent within the Republican ranks. The Tea Party was greatly emboldened when their relatively unknown candidate defeated the high-profile “establishment” candidate, Eric Cantor, in the recent Virginia primary. Then this week the Tea party was sent reeling by the come-from-behind win of the establishment candidate Thad Cochran over the anointed Tea Party candidate in Mississippi.

mcdanielIn his rousing non-concession speech, Chris McDaniel distanced himself from the current Republican Party, saying.

The party I was born with, the party I joined when I was 13 years old, was the party of a former actor from California named Ronald Reagan. … That’s the party I joined. That’s the party I’ve always been a part of.

He then went on to say about the majority who voted for his establishment opponent, “This is not the party of Reagan,” and added,

there are millions of people who feel like strangers in their own party.”

His words express the sentiment of many.

The animosity between Tea Party/Libertarian Republicans and mainstream conservative (or “establishment”) Republicans has been growing throughout the primary season. The Center for Public Integrity documented that in the first two months of this year

conservative groups spent more than $2.3 million on negative ads targeting Republican candidates.

And it adds,

That’s more than the $2.1 million conservative groups spent overtly advocating against the election of Democratic candidates.

Meanwhile, they report, liberal political groups didn’t spend a dime opposing Democratic candidates.

The struggle for dominance in (and thus control of) the Republican Party seems to have come down to a battle between the purists and the pragmatists. As McDaniel complained in denouncing the establishment element within his party,

So much for principle. I guess they can take some consolation in the fact that they did something tonight, by once again compromising, by once again reaching across the aisle, by once again abandoning the conservative movement.

The basic problem with ideological purists is that they treat compromise as a moral evil. One cannot trust or work with those who view compromise as a pragmatic necessity. To reach across the aisle is to abandon one’s purist convictions. One is either with you or against you – an ally or an opponent.

As disagreement with the establishment wing of the Republican Party intensifies, some of the purists feel they have no choice but to renounce their ties with this reprobate majority. Talk of third party candidacies in the Fall 2014 elections continues to surface.

palinThis week Sarah Palin appeared on Hannity and suggested that she might consider joining a third party saying,

If Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung ho about getting in there? [that is, getting them elected to Congress].

When far-right conservatives feel they cannot support establishment conservatives – or decide to openly campaign against them – it spells trouble for the Republican Party as a whole. A fragmented party filled with rancorous infighting will be in a poor position to defeat the Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.

 

Photo credit: AP

Hostage Negotiations

The shutdown of government services in the United States is now well into its second week due to a continuing impasse between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If the two parties cannot come together within the next seven days to raise the debt ceiling, America will face a catastrophic default on its national debt. So far, there has been little movement toward a resolution. Both sides have dug in their heels, and the public is getting worried.

Obama-GalesburgLast Friday President Obama clearly stated that he would not negotiate with Republicans to end the budget standoff “with a gun held to the head of the American people.”  He made a similar statement on Wednesday in a meeting with House Democrats saying he was willing to negotiate with Republicans but “not with a gun at my head.”

20100629_johnboehner_250x375Republican House Speaker John Boehner has pounced on these statements repeatedly stating to the media simply that Obama “will not negotiate.”

On Wednesday the President tried to clarify his position by opening an hour-long press conference with the following extended statement:

This morning I had a chance to speak with Speaker Boehner. And I told him what I’ve been saying publicly, that I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important. But I also told him that having such a conversation, talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.

Hours later, Boehner held his own news conference where he stated,

What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.

In a nutshell, the situation boils down to this:

Obama: “Drop the gun, and we’ll talk.”

Boehner: “I’m not lowering my weapon.”

swat3_sI have been thinking quite a bit in recent days about this “hostage” metaphor. If we were describing a similar hostage incident on our city streets, the police would have been summoned long ago, professional negotiators would be talking down the perpetrator, and the SWAT team would be in place to take lethal action if needed. Unfortunately, in American politics, there is no outside authority to intervene. There is no such police force, and there is no SWAT team.

De-escalating the Crisis

But there is the art of negotiation. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin observes the basic rule used by every SWAT team in hostage situations: “You might not give the hostage taker what he wants, but you start talking and may give him something to prevent him from doing great damage.”

Many people have called on President Obama to “throw Boehner a bone” of some kind to keep negotiations from breaking off completely. Perhaps this is that Obama was doing in his news conference when he announced,

I am happy to talk with [Boehner] and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important.

And it appears that the Republicans have taken hold of this offer. Many commentators have noted how

The GOP argument has shifted over the last week or so from seeking to roll back the president’s healthcare reform law in the fiscal showdown to seeking broader changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.

Many long-time Republican members of the House have been looking for a suitable exit strategy. John Boehner had originally tried to steer the Republican members of the House away from a confrontation over Obamacare, preferring to use the debt ceiling fight to push for further spending cuts. But he was overruled by the Tea Party caucus who insisted on following the strategy laid out by their de facto leader, Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted CruzCruz has since been strongly castigated by other Republican members for overreaching his position and making grand promises that he could not keep. Rep. Peter King [R-NY] stated that he can “never forgive Ted Cruz,” and other Republicans have even circulated negative talking points against Cruz to prominent media personalities.

Others have expressed their disappointment with John Boehner who caved to the Tea party demands, demonstrating that even he finds himself being held hostage to Tea Party tactics.

cartoon Obama calls Boehner

Many Republican House members have expressed their frustration with having been pressured to join the Tea Party’s all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare. Charlie Dent [R-Pa] for one has gone on record as saying that strategy championed by Ted Cruz and a host of Tea Party congressmen has “failed miserably.”

But Tea Party members – and their outside funders and agitators – are not willing to back down. Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report states that

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told reporters Tuesday morning that grassroots conservatives will accept neither a pivot away from the issue in an effort to resolve the deadlock nor a short-term reopening of the government that doesn’t defund the law.

Finding an Exit Strategy

Is there any way out of this morass? Can House Republicans rally around a strategy that will enable them to emerge from this standoff with a win of some sort? Enter Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, who suddenly stepped forward this week to chart a new course for the House Republicans. Ryan had been keeping a low profile throughout the entire Obamacare standoff and subsequent government shutdown, letting others take center stage instead.

Paul-ryan2Then the day after President Obama announced that he would be willing to agree to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if it were a “clean” extension (that is, without other conditions), Ryan stepped forward with a detailed plan reported in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal saying “We’re ready to negotiate.”

Interestingly, his proposals do not mention Obamacare at all, focusing instead on “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlements and tax code.” Today, Ryan headed to the White House for a meeting with the President along with 17 other Republican House members.

Many non-Tea Party Republican House members greeted Ryan’s entry into the fray with relief. “There’s nobody in the caucus that commands the respect that Paul does,” said one House Republican. Rep. Bill Nuizenga [R-MI] is quoted as saying, “The moderates trust him, they might not always like what he has to say but they trust him.”

The Tea Party and their  backers, on the other hand, are outraged. Tom Kludt at Talking Points Memo points out that

Right-wing groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, and RedState.com immediately lashed out at Ryan for failing to include the death of Obamacare in his demands in exchange for not intentionally crashing the global economy.

They were joined by Amanda Carpenter, spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large at the right-wing Breitbart.com, and a long list of others.

But the popular base the Tea Party once enjoyed is now waning. As Fox News contributor Leslie Marshall noted in a strongly worded essay on Wednesday,

The Tea Party’s influence and following among the American population has plunged to the lowest point since it’s inception. Less than one in four Americans now back the Tea Party, according to a recent Gallup poll. And in that same poll, those who hate the Tea Party and oppose its tactics have greatly risen in number.

She continues,

If you break down the numbers, it’s perplexing why any Republican would forge ahead with the tea party’s shutdown. First: poll after poll shows the American people do not want this shutdown. Further, they do not want this shutdown over Obamacare. The polls also show Americans dislike a government shutdown more than they dislike Obamacare. Polls show the American people blame Republicans; even other Republicans!

The solution, in her view, is for the Republican Party to completely disassociate itself from the Tea Party and vice versa. “If you call yourself a party,” she says, then “become a party.”

It is time for the Republicans to reexamine what their party stands for.  They are fast losing credibility with the public over this self-imposed budgetary crisis and the extreme unproductive positions taken so far. If they do not change course they, like the Tea Party they are currently beholding to, will speak only for a radical ostracized minority. Conservatism has a place in American politics. Radicalism does not.

In the late 1960s the Democrats followed an idealistic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who advocated progressive policy positions that the American public could not broadly endorse. The Party appeared to have capitulated to a radicalized core, and people abandoned it in droves. It took a lot of soul-searching, but eventually the Democrats reinvented themselves, under a more moderate banner of Clinton economics.

Republicans need to learn from that example. It may be a painful process – severing limbs (or removing cancerous growths) always is. But if the Party is to survive, it must be done.

There is more than one hostage in this drama.

 

Credits: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images; AP;  Senate TV/AP; Wasserman/Tribune Content Agency; Gage Skidmore/Flickr

 

America at the Brink

America now stands at the edge of a government shutdown on October 1 if Congress fails to pass a Continuing Resolution to fund the operations of the federal government as it begins its new fiscal year. Right now, passage of this bill in its present form looks extremely unlikely.

Continuing Resolutions (temporary measures to fund government operations) have become common in recent years, as the two houses of Congress have been unable to agree on an annual budget. In fact, federal budgets have been approved on time only four times in the last 35 years, the last being in 1997.

The Senate passed its own version of a new budget earlier this year, but the House majority leader, John Boehner, has refused to let it come for a vote since the Republican majority in the House of Representatives opposes it. Unless new spending appropriations are passed by October 1, all non-essential government services will have to be shut down. Some 800,000 federal employees will be laid off. Veterans’ affairs, national parks, environmental protection, and a host of other services will be shut down. Civilian employees providing support services in the military will also be sent home.

obama-signs-affordable-care-act_custom-b7af1438c0b0d7bbf85748009e257a998040d1ae-s6-c30How did matters reach this crisis point? It all revolves around the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) passed by Congress in early 2010. Republicans have been opposed to the Act from the beginning, and have been throwing up roadblocks to its full implementation ever since.

Immediately after the Affordable Care Act was passed Republicans challenged its constitutionality in court. The Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional, except for one provision that infringed upon states’ rights which was then modified. Republicans fought a presidential election over it in 2012 with their candidate promising to repeal Obamacare as soon as he took office. They lost again. Since then, the Republican controlled House has voted 42 times to repeal, defeat, or defund Obamacare – all to no effect. They have delayed other important committee work and legislation, and have neglected dealing with bills passed by the Senate so as to focus on this one all-consuming issue.

115043_600-1

Through it all, work has continued during the last three years to prepare for the full implementation of this Act. Negotiations have been conducted with individual states to get them on board with the plan through a variety of arrangements. Subsidies have been arranged for those presently uninsured would have difficulty in paying health care premiums. A network of health care exchanges has been set up to assist people in finding the best rates and provisions to choose from. Health insurers have created new plans and new rate structures to deal with new enrollees. And most recently an army of “navigators” has been hired and trained to counsel individual applicants seeking health care insurance.

Now the preparatory work is done. As of Tuesday, October 1 (the same day that the federal government must have new money to continue operations), people will able to begin enrolling for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. They will have 6 months in which to do this, and the coverage for those enrolled will begin on January 1, 2014.

Republican opponents are in a panic. They are determined to stop Obamacare by any means possible. Their latest strategy, with all else having failed, has been to shut down the U.S. government if Obamacare is not withdrawn.

Events this Past Week

On Friday, September 20, the House passed a Continuing Resolution approving a temporary continuation of funding until December 15, 2013 with an attached amendment to defund Obamacare. The resolution then went to the Senate for consideration.

Ted CruzIn a lively spectacle, Junior Republican Senator Ted Cruz mounted a 21-hour monologue (it was not technically a filibuster) imploring his fellow Republicans to prevent his own Party’s House bill from receiving a Senate vote. (That struck many as an odd strategy.) Afterward the Senate voted 100-0 to take up the bill anyway, and the Democratic majority proceeded to strip off the amendment defunding Obamacare. By Friday, the Senate had voted to pass the unamended bill, and sent it back to the House for final approval.

But Republicans members of the House were not satisfied. Republican Tea Party members in the House consulted Senator Ted Cruz and followed his advice – opposing the announced strategy of the House majority leader John Boehner – and attached new amendments to the resolution before passing it. There is something rather astonishing when a junior Tea Party Senator elected to Congress only 8 months ago has more clout with House Republicans than their own seasoned, senior leader.

House Republicans have finally realized that they cannot succeed in defunding Obamacare outright. So they have developed a fallback plan. A new amendment will this time only  seek to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for one year until January 2015. Other amendments will repeal the medical device tax (adding $30 billion to the federal deficit over the next ten years), and allow employers and health care providers to opt out of mandatory contraception coverage. In addition, the House passed a separate bill to continue paying military personnel during the expected government shutdown.

The bills received unanimous support from Republican members of the House. They now go back to the Senate to be dealt with on Monday morning with less than one day remaining to find a resolution to the funding crisis. The Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, however, has already declared the new House bill, with its one year delay of Obamacare, to be dead on arrival.

Harry ReidImpatience with the House tactics is growing. Harry Reid sharply stated,

After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at Square 1. We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.

This is unusually strong language for Harry Reid. But it is no stronger than that used by Republican critics who have repeatedly called Obamacare a totalitarian, Communist scheme that is the most destructive law ever passed by Congress and will bring the country to ruin.

For those of us living outside the United States where national health coverage has been a standard practice for many decades, this extreme rhetoric seems quite absurd. America’s closest neighbor and strongest ally. Canada, has had national health care for 50 years, and no one there would dream of doing without it. When Canadians were asked several years ago to name the greatest Canadian of all time, and they overwhelmingly named Tommy Douglas, the political leader who introduced national health care in Canada.

Republicans are in a panic because they know that in a few years Americans will also embrace the benefits of their new national health care plan and no one will dare to take those benefits away. The American public may even give lasting credit to President Obama who persevered and made these benefits possible.

The ideological opponents of Obamacare can see the writing on the wall. Having lost all other gambits, they have retreated to at least demanding that Obamacare be delayed for a year – until after the 2014 mid-term elections. They know that if Obamacare goes into effect in January of 2014, by the time the election campaigns are in full swing people will have gotten used to their benefits. Those living in Republican controlled states that have rejected the local implementation of the Affordable Care Act will look at their neighbors’ coverage and begin to demand the same.

Elections will be fought and lost on this issue. It could well decimate the Republican and Tea Party ranks. It is quite possible that within a short time any politician defiantly opposing the ACA will come to be held in as much disdain as were those who continued to obstinately oppose school segregation after the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. This legislation is that big of a game changer

My advice to the opponents of Obamacare: Get over it and move on to other things. If this is the ditch you have chosen to die in, so be it. There will be few mourners.

 Credits: Getty Images; AP; Star Tribune

Republican Party’s Shift to the Right

The Republican Party of today had gained a reputation for being dogmatic, ideological, intransigent and combative. It takes positions far to the right on most major issues. It has become dominated by a faction that until just a few decades ago represented only a small minority position within the Party as a whole. That vocal faction now seeks to define the entire party in its own image.

GeoffreyKabaserviceSMWhat accounts for this wholesale shift to the right, and what does it portend for the future of the Republican Party? These issues are addressed in the recent meticulously researched book by the respected Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

In the Preface of his book, Kabaservice provides an overview of the events that produced this ideological shift within the Republican Party. He explains that

The form of conservatism that now wholly controls the party did not even exist until the 1950s, and remained a minority faction for many years afterward. … It is only in the last decade or so that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms “liberal Republican” or “moderate Republican” have practically become oxymorons. [p. vxi]

How did this transformation take place? Kabaservice explains,

During the 1950s a new breed of conservatism, which became known as the New Right, developed in reaction to President Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of political moderation which, at the time, appeared to dominate the GOP. [p. vxii]

Frustrated by the moderates’ influence on Republican Party politics, the New Right sought to bring together conservatives in a well-defined counter movement.

The immediate goal of movement conservatism was to seize the GOP’s presidential nomination by taking over party organizations and the forums in which national convention delegated were chosen. The longer-term goal was to transform the Republican Party into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted the true faith. [pp. vxii-xviii]

This process would take decades, and it would suffer some early early setbacks. But in the end the New Right triumphed over the moderates and redefined Republican Party politics as a whole. Kabaservice explains,

Barry GoldwaterThe history of the struggles between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party opens with the 1960 GOP national convention, which marked the first time that the New Right entered the Republican political scene in a significant way. It was also the last moment when moderates exercised anything close to dominance of the party. … [T]he period from 1960 to 1964 witnessed the conservatives’ capture of most of the Republican Party machinery, culminating in the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as the 1964 presidential candidate. Goldwater and his supporters set the tone for the conservative movement ever after by mobilizing a base of right-wing populists, refusing to compromise with moderates, and pursuing a Southern strategy aimed at attracting civil rights opponents to the GOP. [p. vxiii]

These events set the stage for what Kabaservice calls a “civil war between the party’s moderate and conservative factions.” [p. 30] In a recent interview Kabaservice states that the 1964 Republican nominating convention was a brutal affair. At the convention,

[The Goldwater camp] gave absolutely no quarter to Republican moderates, no voice whatsoever. Conservatives stood behind Goldwater’s rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and they ripped up a lot of what the Republican Party had stood for through the previous several elections. Barry Goldwater’s statement that if you’re not committed to our cause you should leave, and that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice — these were messages to the moderates that they were not wanted in the Republican Party. That they needed to go.

The New Right triumphed at the 1964 nominating convention, and Goldwater’s supporters saw this as their “golden moment.” But when it came to running against the Democratic nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeat, with Johnson winning the election by a landslide.

In response, moderates within the Republican Party “staged furious efforts to retake control.” They organized around causes such as civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. They formed publications and think tanks to counter the New Right ideology promulgated in William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Volunteers and party workers promoted the presidential candidacy of moderates like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. They had to contend with dirty tricks by a new breed of activists like Karl Rove within the Young Republicans organization. Republican feminists went head to head with Phyllis Schlafly and the National Federation of Republican Women. The gains were only temporary. Some of the talented young moderates of that era like Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Rumsfeld would later change sides and become prominent figures representing the New Right. [p. vxiii]

A critical mass of moderate Republican politicians remained in office after 1970, although their numbers dwindled, and moderate ideas continued to have some influence on the GOP’s positions. [p. xix]

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, however, marked a resurgence of conservative ideology within the Republican Party, ushering in a nearly mythical “golden age” in the collective memory of the New Right. Moderate Republicans have never recovered. Kabaservice states that

In the years after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 … the moderates did not simply die out, but were killed off by conservative enmity from within their own party as well as Democratic opposition and their own failures. The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the final decline and virtual extinction of moderates’ power and representation in the Republican Party. [p. xix]

Kabaservice concludes the introduction of his book by noting that

There remain millions of voters who define themselves as moderate Republicans, and millions more who would vote for moderate Republican candidates if they could find them. But the complete domination of the conservative infrastructure in party politics, and the absence of moderate efforts to counter grassroots movements like the Tea Party, means that the GOP has for all intents and purposes become a uniformly ideological party unlike any that has existed in American history. It has also become a party that has cut itself off from its own history, and indeed has become antagonistic to most of its own heritage. This unprecedented transformation of one of our major parties is likely to change our entire political system in ways that ought to concern all Americans.

Rule and Ruin presents a fascinating study of the rise of the new conservatism that thoroughly dominates the Republican Party today. Kabaservice provides a great deal of historical detail in tracing these developments, and I will report more of his findings in future posts.