What Would It Take?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the most disappointing outcomes at the polls on Tuesday was the defeat of a school financing bill in Colorado.  That is not the kind of thing that makes pulses race, of course, but it was a significant moment in American politics.  A well-funded effort (including money from the Gates Foundation, and others) put an initiative on the ballot that would have added $1 billion in annual funding for Colorado's public schools, focusing the additional funding on the poorest schools in the state, with funding coming from a tax increase that was explicitly progressive.  The measure was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.

In explaining the defeat, a former Democratic governor of the state argued, according to a news report, that the effort "ran aground against a public made newly cynical by the government shutdown and the botched start of the president’s health care effort."  If that is right, then it is a perfect example of how the radical Republicans' strategy to, as I put it in a recent Dorf on Law post, "create moronic chaos" pays off.  The shutdown has been widely described as a public-relations disaster for Republicans, especially the Tea Party, but they are already seeing the benefits of their nihilistic strategy.  Similarly, complaining incessantly about the health care law's website is a distraction, at best, but it is a distraction that works politically.

The question that I ask in my new Verdict column, published yesterday, is why anyone who is not a true-believing Tea Partier is still a Republican.  There is now a lot of talk about how the "establishment" is going to take back the party from the crazies (see, e.g., here and here), but the complaints from the supposedly non-crazy Republicans are mostly about specific seats that were lost by candidates who made extra-crazy comments about reproductive rights issues.  The expressed concern is not that there is something wrong with the extreme policies that Republicans support in lockstep, but that people like Ken Cuccinelli and Todd Akin are public embarrassments (who, by the way, barely lost their respective races).

No one has asked, as far as I have been able to determine, why the Republicans are so committed to their hard-line social policies that they would oppose efforts like the one in Colorado in the first place.  The proposal was hardly a piece of radical social engineering.  The party that constantly talks about the importance of our children and grandchildren, and that pays lip service to equality of opportunity, is willing to defeat this measure, because it involves a tax increase?!  This reminds us that Republicans still view Newt Gingrich as an "ideas guy," whose distortions about the use of Food Stamps have caused Republicans to vote as a bloc (no Tea Party vs. Establishment split here!) to cut Food Stamps in a way that hurts the most vulnerable people in the country -- including their children.

I understand a debate over the appropriate degree of funding for, say, employment training programs.  I can imagine losing an election because a majority of the public decides that the tax system should be changed in various ways that I do not support.  I would be disappointed, but I would understand that the parties will have different approaches, and the voters can choose between them.

What I do not understand, as I wrote in my Verdict column, is how anyone who claims not to be an extremist remains in the Republican Party today.  If you want to take a conservative position on government spending, you can be a Democrat.  If you are comfortable with passing limitations on reproductive rights, you will have plenty of company among Democrats.  Staying in the Republican Party today, however, means that you are comfortable associating with a group of people who overwhelmingly opposed background checks on gun purchases (which were supported by 90% of the public).  It means that you view continuing cuts to Head Start, school lunches, housing vouchers, and so on as acceptable (or even desirable).  It means supporting efforts to prevent the IRS from trying to crack down on tax cheating -- and using the IRS non-scandal scandal as an excuse to make government run less effectively.

Different people have differing tolerance for holding their noses and working with people they dislike.  I can certainly understand why the Republican Party did not simply cease to exist after Reagan won the nomination in 1980.  (Remember that Reagan was so extreme at the time that the party establishment tried to draft Gerald Ford at the nominating convention.)  The question that I have had for several years now, however, is simple: What could possibly be enough to drive someone out of that party, if they have not already been driven out?

There are, at least, three categories of people to whom that question is pertinent.  First, there are the people in the Republican Party who currently hold public office.  What are the supposed moderates in the party, like Senator Collins of Maine or Rep. King of New York, thinking?  The most plausible explanation is that they are simply not moderate.  By comparison to the crazies in their party, they come across as people with the ability to reason.  Yet they say nothing about the bulk of their party's agenda, even though both of them could switch parties and easily win re-election and serve as Democrats -- if they actually disagree with the hard right agenda that both the Tea Party and the establishment wing of the Republican Party support.

The second category is people who are essentially the mirror image of me, that is, non-officeholders whose life revolves around policy and politics, but who obviously identify with the Republicans.  I clearly have objections to the Democrats, on both substance and tactics, but it is certainly accurate to say that I am a Democrat and support that party's general approach.  What is someone like me thinking, on the opposite side of the fence?  Other than pure careerism (hoping to get a federal judgeship, or appointment to an executive office), why do any but a tiny core of extreme, true-believer conservative economists and law professors hang on?  "Sure, there are some crazies, but that's true of the Democrats, too," is simply false.  Maybe it is simply a matter of habit.

The third category, of course, is voters at large.  I understand the notion of "low-information voters," but my God!  How bad does it have to get before people understand that the Republican label is now being placed on an entirely different product?  Maybe, as I suggested above, this group's inaction can also be explained by little more than habit, or inertia.

The idea that there are people who are still in the Republican Party who do not agree with what that party has become was once somewhat plausible.  It no longer is.  We do not want to believe that half of the country is really as nasty and mean-spirited as the House Republicans are, but alternative explanations are becoming more and more difficult to find.