When Turnabout is Not Fair Play

            The pace at which the post-2012 Presidential election Republican Party is jettisoning previously adopted positions is little short of jarring. Several prominent Party leaders recently embraced same sex marriage by joining an amicus brief concerning the issue for the Supreme Court and many have undertaken an about face on immigration policy as well. Meanwhile, several GOP governors have now elected to accept the previously much maligned “Obamacare” expansion of Medicaid in their states. Observers and party faithful alike are seeking to make sense of these shifts. They represent sharp changes following a national campaign that often vilified immigrants and same sex marriage and labeled increased access to health care for the nation’s uninsured millions an in-principle and abominable deprivation of personal liberty. When asked recently why these large and sudden changes were occurring in major GOP positions long dear to elements of that party’s base, Senator John McCain (R. AZ.) said, “An election happened.”

            The veteran lawmaker’s comment reminded us that parties ultimately exist principally as vehicles for garnering power and the Republican Party is currently smarting from its fourth electoral loss in the last six national elections. As such, its leaders are evaluating all of its adopted stands in light of positioning the party to garner more votes in the future from those groups in society with which it did not fare well last November. And GOP leaders are doing so recognizing that those voting blocs will soon make up the majority of the electoral population.

            While one might wonder whether this change of heart is genuine since it constitutes so sudden a turn from stridently harsh and shrill rhetoric in favor of contrary positions, and many commentators have done so, I want to raise two different questions concerning these abrupt shifts. First, I find myself musing on the power politics implications of these positions vis-à-vis the communities the party has suddenly abandoned and what that may mean for the GOP going forward. And second, I am struck that despite the internal dissensus so evident among Republicans today, the party’s leaders appear to believe that they can maintain a base constituency around calls for reduced government expenditure, especially that associated with programs for the poor and vulnerable in society. This stance will likely lead to still more hardship for the nation’s marginalized citizens at a time of already pervasive inequality and high poverty rates in our nation.

            Were I a social conservative who believed deeply that homosexuality violated my understanding of God’s will and should in no instance be tolerated in law or public policy, let alone sanctified through marriage, I would be nonplussed by the GOP’s sudden abandonment of my position, having been assured only months ago not only of my righteousness, but of the Party’s strong support for my stance. I would nonetheless find myself today literally thrown under the wheels of the oncoming bus by Party representatives arguing a completely opposed position. I am not surprised that many social conservatives are angry and embittered by this shift. GOP leaders meanwhile hope this group can be mollified by the Party’s continued hard line stand against abortion and “out of control” government spending. Those same leaders appear perhaps cynically confident, too, that however angry this faction of the Party base may be at its apparent betrayal, its members are unlikely to shift loyalties. The same logic follows for those supporting the Party who are deeply concerned about immigration. GOP leaders seem set to embark on much needed reform, but most are seeking to placate supporters by suggesting they either will not permit or will require onerous conditions for “illegals” to attain citizenship. Nonetheless, the Party’s change of position has been swift and far-reaching.

            If Republican leaders seem to believe that the GOP can shift some of its positions with near impunity, they also now appear more wedded than ever to a gospel of national expenditure reduction, even in the face of the dangers such action poses for the nation’s weak economy and its portent for the vulnerable populations it will affect. Whether this choice is cynical and small, a means by which to soothe disaffected elements of the Party’s base, the only practicable ideological recourse for the Party given the beliefs of its supporters, or some combination of all of these tendencies (and perhaps others) at once, is debatable.

            The current sequestration, a product of GOP ideologically framed insistence that this meat-ax approach to expenditure reduction was essential to combat federal deficit spending, will have the following known effects for the nation’s vulnerable according to a recent cataloging by Robert Reich:

Some $1.9 billion in low-income rental subsidies are being eliminated, affecting 125,000 people. Cuts to the Department of Agriculture will eliminate rental assistance for another 10,000 low-income rural people. Meanwhile, 100,000 formerly homeless Americans are likely to be removed from their current emergency shelters More than 3.8 million Americans receiving long-term unemployment benefits will have their monthly payments reduced by as much as 9.4 percent, and lose an average of $400 in benefits over their period of joblessness. The Department of Education's Title I program, which helps schools serving more than a million disadvantaged students, will be cut $715 million, and $400 million will be cut from Head Start, the preschool program for poor children. And major cuts will be made in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides nutrition assistance and education.

            These reductions come on the heels of the nation’s long-lived and brutalizing recession and continued high rates of unemployment. They also strongly risk extending the period of the nation’s economic weakness even as they result in significant job losses. Most economists argue these effects will occur because these cuts are not now appropriate in so weak a national economy. But the Party is forging ahead with this course because that action appeals to the many voters in its base who believe government is society’s most pressing problem and that many, if not most, of its expenditures are neither legitimate nor appropriate. The New York Times reports that GOP leaders trust that ensuring sharp expenditure reductions, whatever their portent for the poor and for vulnerable citizens and for the economy, will help to unify the Party’s various factions as it otherwise seeks to reposition itself. In this view, attaining some modicum of Party electoral unity apparently is worth the price it imposes on the already poor, vulnerable and marginalized populations and the economic risk it brings. In any case, GOP leaders may be content in knowing that these costs will be borne by groups unpopular with its base, or can be blamed on other actors should they adversely affect the economy as widely predicted.

            It is difficult to know what to say about this situation except to suggest the obvious. It in no sense can be said to be an exercise in democratic governance. It is instead an ideologically framed exercise apparently undertaken simply, and some might say cynically, to appeal to elements of the Party’s base to maintain some semblance of unity to help the GOP’s chances of securing increased power, whatever the costs to the nation. That price now looks set to be significant, and imposing it for such reasons is simply unacceptable by any democratic calculus.