When Binary Systems Go Bad

Americans watch with vague interest as other countries hold their elections and try to decide who should next be in charge, a bit puzzled by parliamentary systems with more than two political parties. The trick there is to assemble a ruling coalition, which is hard when there’s one generally conservative party and one vaguely liberal party, but neither has won enough seats to form a majority, and never will. The major party that comes closest to holding a majority of seats always has to rope in a third party or two, to join them and cross that threshold that means they’ll get to run things. They have to convince that small but noisy Green Party or the Nudists for World Peace or the Toss-Out-the-Damned-Gypsies Party, or the Friends of Calligraphy, to join them. In doing that they have to concede this or that minor party has a point about whatever their issue is, and promise to advance that minor party’s agenda, at least a little bit, now and then. That inevitably distorts the agenda of the leading major policy – deregulating the markets and dismantling the social safety net, or the opposite – but they have no choice. It really is necessary to “form a government” – no country can go on for very long without one, although Italy is famous for going for months, and sometimes years, with no one being able to assemble any sort of ruling coalition at all. The Germans and Brits and Israelis, after each election, work things out in a few days, but, well, Italians are an excitable people.

That’s not how we run things. We have two parties, and that’s that, and there’s no question, ever, about “forming” a government. Ours is fully-formed. It’s periodically traded off from one party to the other, and everyone knows where each of our parties stands. We’re offered an unambiguous binary choice every two or four years, and we make our choice. When there is a third-party candidate, George Wallace or Ross Perot, or Ralph Nader time and time again, each is no more than a “spoiler” – they draw key votes from the party that might have otherwise won, but after the election no winner is ever obligated to pay any attention at all to what that particular third-party candidate was all hot and bothered about. The whole process here is simple. Elsewhere in the world those shaky coalitions eventually fall apart and the Parliament or Knesset or whatever holds a “no confidence” vote – which can happen any old time – and that triggers new elections, and the whole process starts all over again.

That’s untidy, and often chaotic, and dangerous if it happens every month or two – nothing ever gets done if no one can agree on who’s in charge – but it assures a responsive government that can turn on a dime when necessary. We have to wait for two or four years to trade one group of folks for another, no matter what the immediate crisis, and of course in those other systems no one can afford to blithely ignore the sometimes important views of groups that have concerns that neither major party gives a damn about. All those groups have to do is win a few seats. That gives them leverage. Everyone gets a say, maybe even the Friends of Calligraphy. The inherent chaos and instability in such systems, always a danger, is a bit of a bother, but there’s something to be said for suppleness and inclusion. It’s a trade-off.

We rejected that trade-off, and even though we started off with no political parties, we settled on only two soon enough, even if their names have changed over the years – one generally conservative and one vaguely liberal. There’s no room for anything in-between, or out-of-bounds, and our elections are fixed in time – they happen on schedule, save for the occasional state or local recall election. Our system might not be supple – immediately responsive to changing circumstance – or inclusive of the important concerns of those who have a new way of seeing things – but it’s stable. Suppleness and inclusion are cool, but we prefer continuity. We don’t like surprises.

That may have been a bad choice, because there are always surprises, and we can no longer be assured of our two parties with unambiguous views:

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) displayed a rare flash of anger at outside conservative groups on Wednesday when asked about their opposition to a two-year bipartisan budget deal struck between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

“You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” a visibly angry Boehner told reporters Wednesday, his tone rising. “They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.”

There’s a new third party here, who demands that their concerns be incorporated into the Republican Party, if the Republican Party wants to return to power, just like in a parliamentary system. That would be the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity – and John Boehner wants none of it. They did begin speaking out against this budget deal before it was announced – on principle – and they know they have enough House Republicans on their side. They’ve made Boehner’s life miserable – he’s been unable to pass much of anything, and many consider him completely incompetent as Speaker. He finally snapped:

The conservative organizations griped that the emerging deal, the broad outlines of which would raise spending from current levels of $967 billion to $1.012 trillion in 2014. The agreement would reduce the deficit by about $20 billion, and mitigate some of the across-the-board sequestration cuts by replacing them with targeted discretionary spending cuts and non-tax revenue.

“Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement,” Boehner said.

He’s had enough of this nonsense:

Boehner also attacked the outside conservative groups inside the closed-door meeting on Wednesday with House Republicans… “These groups aren’t acting out of principle, and they’re not trying to enact conservative policies. They’re using you to raise money and expand their own organization,” Boehner said, according to the source’s paraphrase. “No one controls your voting card but you.”

He is angry, maybe because the whole binary two-party system that we’ve had for what seems like forever, where he has a fixed and important place, is falling apart in front of his eyes, or, as an item in Politico argues, the private war within the Republican Party just went public:

The frenzied activity – just days before the House is scheduled to recess until 2014 – represents the ultimate culmination of a power struggle between institutional Republicans in Congress and outside groups, who are funded by well-heeled conservative donors and can pay for primary challenges. …

Republican leaders have long accused those outside groups – Heritage Action, Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, to name a few – of existing solely to oppose them. Many of these organizations accuse Boehner, his leadership team and some Republican members of Congress of being a bunch of squishes willing to abandon their conservative principles in favor of compromises.

More than fifty members of conservative groups signed on to a statement Wednesday evening responding to both Boehner’s remarks and Teller’s dismissal.

“It is clear that the conservative movement has come under attack on Capitol Hill today,” the statement reads.

That was a no-confidence vote, at least within the party, and our system never has allowed for such things. Boehner was offended, but he’s not alone:

Boehner’s line of attack against outside groups follows a similar tack by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who has focused his outrage on the Senate Conservatives Fund. He even blessed the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s blacklisting of consulting firms that do business with the group.

The lines have been drawn and there will be no coalition-building now:

“John Boehner has apparently decided to join Mitch McConnell in the war on conservatives,” Senate Conservatives Fund executive Director Matt Hoskins said. “McConnell called us fringe traitors who should be locked in a bar and punched in the nose, and now Boehner is lashing out at us too. Conservatives everywhere need to understand that the party’s leadership has declared war on them. If they don’t fight back, they will always regret it. We’re going to hang together or hang separately.”

Then Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) upped the ante.

The chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the bastion of the right-wing strategy on Capitol Hill, fired its long-time executive director Paul Teller for leaking member-level conversations to the outside groups, according to a senior Republican aide.

“Paul was divulging private, member level conversations and actively working against strategies developed by RSC members,” said the senior GOP aide familiar with the group. “Trust between senior staff and RSC members is paramount. No staffer is above a member.”

Scalise and Teller didn’t immediately comment.

The details of that story are fascinating – the guy was a mole for those outside interest groups, as they’re called, passing on secret and confidential information to them, about what the institutional Republicans in Congress were up to. He was a spy. They outed him, which made things worse:

Conservatives reacted with outrage at what they perceived as a one-two punch to try and squelch the tea party.

“The fact they are making an example of Paul is clearly a message to staffers and other members that they will take a pound of flesh if they go against them on this sellout budget deal,” said one Senate Republican aide with close ties to the tea party. “It’s disgraceful. This is clearly Paul Ryan and John Boehner cracking down on dissent in the House. It shows the hostility the establishment has to tea party-minded staffers.”

This is a mess:

Heritage Action urged Republican leadership to strip food stamps from the farm bill. When Republican leadership did, Heritage Action still urged lawmakers to vote against the bill. The group irked the RSC so much that they banned Heritage Action aides from attending their weekly meeting.

After the government shutdown, top Republicans, frustrated with the tea party hijacking their agenda, urged business groups to get more active in primaries.

But the groups who have drawn the most ire aren’t changing their strategy.

Heritage Action’s Dan Holler said Republicans who vote for Ryan’s budget will have to explain their support to their constituents.

And so it goes. In a parliamentary democracy, the Tea Party would be just that – its own separate party, that wins seats when and where it can, and then bargains with whatever party needs their seats to form a new government. In our binary system they’re forced to take over one of the existing parties, and Ed Kilgore addresses that:

Every time the Republican Party goes through adversity – whether it’s losing an election or suffering a plunge in popularity or falling into what is sometimes called a “civil war” – there are constant internal and (especially) external calls for some exercise in “soul-searching” or “rebranding” or “adjustment to political reality.” In recent years, these wilderness periods have been extremely brief, and have universally concluded with defiant pledges among an array of GOP leaders to remain true to their “conservative principles” regardless of the cost. We’ve seen a reprise of this predictable drama in Virginia this week, with state party chairman Pat Mullins leading a chorus of objections to any ideological recalibration at a GOP retreat.

Sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner, non-Republicans need to accept that the GOP knows exactly where its “soul” is located, and has an agenda that is impervious to significant change. What keeps getting described as a “struggle for the soul” of the party or a “civil war” is generally a fight over strategy, tactics and cosmetics, and not ideology. For the foreseeable future, the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, itself radicalized by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, is the prevailing reality of politics on the Right, and the GOP’s practical options are accordingly limited to one flavor or another of that persuasion.

In short, if there was a War for the Republican Party it was over long ago, for clear reasons:

There are a lot of contributing factors, including the GOP’s shrinking but homogeneous “base,” the supremacy of conservative ideological media, and the rise of heavily-funded political players determined to root out heresy. But the most important source of rigidity is conservative ideology itself, which does not aim (as do most European conservatives) at “moderating” or countering the bipartisan policies of the past or the Democratic policies of the present, but aspires to a counterrevolution that “restores” what conservatives regard as immutable principles of good government and even culture.

In its most explicit form, that of the “constitutional conservatives” who really dominate discussion within the GOP and who are likely to produce their next presidential nominee, the only genuinely “American” policies, designed by the Founders according to both natural and divine law, involve a free-market economy with extremely limited government and a traditionalist, largely patriarchal culture. These policies, buttressed by an increasingly chiliastic view of the status quo (e.g., the “Holocaust” of legalized abortion, and the social policy “tipping point” at which an elite-underclass alliance will destroy private property and liberty entirely), simply are not negotiable.

This is about as far from the supple and inclusive systems in other western democracies as can be imagined:

The audacity of this agenda, which requires uprooting decades’ worth of laws, programs and constitutional precedents, many of them supported or even created by Republicans, requires a set of assumptions about electoral victories and defeats that many mainstream media folk or Democrats do not seem to understand. A “victory” that does not lend itself to counterrevolutionary outcomes is far less preferable than a deferred victory that brings down the whole rotten edifice of the welfare state and routs the secular-socialist elites who could survive a RINO administration.

That’s what we have, and Kilgore says we’d better get used to it:

Many observers who either misunderstand this dynamic or want to change it are putting a lot of stock in a 2016 Republican presidential ticket led by a genuine “pragmatist” like Chris Christie. I just don’t see it. Perhaps Christie, like Romney (and to a large extent John McCain) will be willing to sign enough litmus tests to become acceptable to “the base,” but in so doing he’ll be confirming the desire of many Republicans to disguise or distort their intentions until Election Day is passed and the balloon payment comes due on the mortgage party leaders have taken out with conservative activists.

Any way you look at it, though, the “soul” of the GOP is pretty much right in plain sight, and if there’s a “civil war” over its agenda, the generals are Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

That’s why, in the National Journal, Beth Reinhard argues that the Tea Party has already won:

Though the movement’s candidates are underdogs in most of the 2014 contests against the Republican establishment, the mere fear of conservative challengers has the grassroots chalking up victory after victory on Capitol Hill.

The tea party shut down the government over Obamacare, put immigration reform on life support, and is holding the farm bill hostage over food stamps. Hard-liners long ago torpedoed hopes of a “grand bargain” over the budget and debt limit. …

So even if Republicans facing primary challengers from the right are not in real danger, their rivals will keep bringing the heat, scrambling the potential for deals by a Congress already making history for doing so little.

“The tea party has racked up important victories electorally but also ideologically, and that pressure on establishment Republicans will continue,” said James Hartman, a Louisiana-based political consultant advising tea party-backed congressional candidate Rob Maness. “The compromises being blocked are absolutely favorable in terms of public policy. No, we don’t want tax increases. No, we don’t want Obamacare.”

The battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party expanded in the past week to include challenges against Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, bringing the total of GOP senators facing primary opponents to seven. All of the incumbents are favored to beat their opponents. But that doesn’t mean they’re free to cut any deals across the aisle; doing so would be risky in a highly polarized political climate that sees compromise as betrayal.

“Members of Congress are risk averse, and if they can avoid getting attention from the bullies, they will,” said Republican consultant John Feehery, a former Capitol Hill staffer.

None of this would happen in a parliamentary system, but we don’t have one of those, and Francis Fukuyama puts it this way:

Under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy… We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis.

In short, we’re screwed, systemically. As the scruffy long-haired guys used to say back in the sixties, it’s the system, man, it’s the system.

The odd thing is that this all came to a head over a budget deal that Kevin Drum argues just wasn’t a big deal:

The main thing you need to know about today’s budget agreement is that it’s very modest. It repeals a little bit of the sequester cuts, and pays for it with a few small cuts in entitlements and some even smaller increases in user fees. Overall, the numbers are tiny enough that it’s hard to see how anyone can get either too excited or too outraged over it.

Drum then points out that some on the right don’t see it that way, like the National Review’s Yuval Levin:

This deal would amount to the Democrats accepting the implications of their misjudgment in abiding the Budget Control Act in 2011… It doesn’t much change the terms reached in the original Budget Control Act and sequester deal, and essentially cements the Democrats’ loss and miscalculation in that deal.

The Democrats’ hope, given that they control both the White House and the Senate, was to replace the sequester with some combination of tax increases and more palatable spending cuts… That the Democrats would accept a deal like this is a pretty striking indication of how the Republican House has changed the conversation on the spending front since 2010. Think of it this way: In their first budget after re-taking the majority – the FY 2012 Ryan budget, passed in 2011 – the House Republicans wanted discretionary spending to be $1.039 trillion in 2014 and $1.047 trillion in 2015. These budgets were of course described by the Democrats and the political press (but I repeat myself) as some reversion to humanity’s barbaric past. Yet this proposed deal with the Democrats would put discretionary spending at $1.012 trillion in 2014 and $1.014 trillion in 2015 – in both cases below that first House Republican budget.


To some extent, Levin is probably overstating his case in order to nudge conservatives on-board a deal he thinks is palatable – and away from yet another round of government shutdowns, which he correctly views as disastrous for Republicans. Still, he’s basically right: Democrats originally believed the Sequester would never happen. Either the supercommittee would replace it, or else Republicans would eventually cave in because they couldn’t tolerate the defense cuts – but that turned out not to be true. They aren’t happy with the defense cuts, but in the end, to the surprise of Democrats, they’ve decided they can live with them.

The ultimate result, as Levin says correctly, is a budget that’s below even the pipe-dream Ryan budget of 2011. I’d make a bit less of this than Levin, since Ryan’s budgets have always back-loaded their cuts, but it’s still pretty remarkable. Two years ago, Ryan’s budget was basically at the outer limit of mainstream conservative wish lists. Today it looks tame.

Quibbles aside, Levin is right: Republicans have massively changed the spending conversation since 2010. Austerity has won.

How did that happen? It’s the system, man, it’s the system. The one we have is not exactly supple or inclusive. It’s just simple and easy, and failing us.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to When Binary Systems Go Bad

  1. Rick says:

    I cannot, for the life of me, follow what Ed Kilgore is trying to say, which, I guess, is his point — that lots of us who are not in the middle of the fight among conservatives really don’t get what’s going on within that GOP civil war. So I suppose he’s right.

    Are those on the right all pretty much in agreement as to what they want, but are only arguing over whether, on the one hand, to actually try to achieve their goals, or on the other, to commit to go down fighting for what they believe in, Alamo style?

    If so, then I guess the most the rest of us can hope for is just continuing the way we are, just getting by on continuing resolutions that don’t advance our agenda either; occasionally coming across another so-called deal that we don’t really like (like the current one, which doesn’t extend unemployment benefits), but from which we will inevitably be rescued by the extremists on the other side, who like it even less than we do.

    The real problem with our binary system shows itself the further apart the two parties are. After all, as long as there’s a chance that some sort of agreement, if not actual consensus, can be reached between the two sides, the chance of a revolution is diminished. But if either side loses that hope, then we’re all in for it. At some point, this GOP civil war has to fall apart, and I’m thinking that’s when our problems really begin.

    In the meantime, I guess it could be worse. At least we’re not Italy — or even worse than that (since matters of life and death are involved), Israel!


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