Monday, June 30, 2014

Tom Fina's Letter From Washington, 28 June

The latest insight from Executive-Director Emeritus of Democrats Abroad Thomas Fina:

To Democrats Abroad
28 June 2014
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

This one hundredth anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination that ignited the First World War heightens our rational anxiety about the implications of chaos in the Middle East, Russian moves against Ukraine and China’s muscle flexing in the Pacific.

In this explosive world environment, the United States needs the most informed, rational, prudent, effective government that we can muster. Our role in these titanic conflicts, spawned by the two World Wars, will both help shape their outcome and dictate the kind of society that the United States will have during the next century.

Right now, the prospects for our having an informed, rational, prudent and effective government are pretty chancy. Not only is our electorate increasingly partisan, and militantly partisan, but it is also ideologically fragmented. It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for either of our national parties to assemble a stable coalition able to govern during the next two federal elections.

That problem is spelled out in fine detail in the 130 page Pew report, “Beyond Red vs Blue” (June 26) based on a 27 year study of our electorate. Republicans are split between socially conservative populists (15% of registered voters) and pro-Wall Street, pro-immigrants (12%) while Democrats are anchored to solid liberals (17%). From there on, both parties compete for other constantly shifting segments. Yet, Republicans today are in greater continuing turmoil because of the division between social conservatives and Wall Street conservatives than are Democrats.

The unexpected defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R -VA) by an unknown Tea Party primary challenger (David Brat) on June 10 exemplified one outcome of the Wall Street vs populist struggle. Two weeks later there was the reverse outcome when six term Republican Senator, Thad Cochran, defeated an aggressive Tea Party populist in Mississippi (Chris McDaniel). Cantor’s defeat sent shock waves through incumbents of both parties and seemed to confirm the lessons of the Tea Party rise in 2010 viz that the right is on the rise. Cochran’s victory heartened incumbents and the business community Republicans who control the Republican Party institutions - especially the Republican National Committee.

While the populist Tea Party challengers attacked the incumbents with the same charges – (sold out to Washington, insufficiently anti-tax, anti-government, anti-deficit, anti-Obama), the incumbents defended themselves very differently. Cantor never thought that he was in danger until late in the campaign when he dumped huge amounts of money into attacks on his opponent which provided Brat with valuable name recognition and helped his campaign. That Cantor was in Washington fund raising for Republicans on election day rather than campaigning in his district tells the story of a political leader whose national ambitions blinded him to the need to keep the loyalty of his constituents with endless back scratching and petting.

Cochran had the advantage of lessons from Cantor’s defeat and a powerful warning when he was forced into a run-off by his June 3 primary. In the three weeks until that second chance run-off, the business establishment of the Republican Party (e.g. Chamber of Commerce) went all-out to support him. His Tea Party challenger had comparable support from the powerful national Tea Party backers (Club for Growth). But, the most fascinating move by Cochran (who never resorted to Cantor’s character attacks on his opponent and was always in touch with his African American community) was to turn to black voters and other Democrats. That worked and while both candidates increased their vote in the run-off, Cochran gained more. Nate Silver and almost everyone else concluded that it was the jump in black votes that provided Cochran’s margin of victory. (It’s worth noting that his appeal to black voters also appears to have brought out more voters in support of his Tea Party opponent.)

Cochran is no southern liberal! He has regularly voted for tax cuts that choked off federal spending which has slowed our economic recovery, He voted to cut food stamp eligibility and has shown no opposition to voter ID laws intended to reduce black voting. He praised the Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act. But, he is among the vanishing breed of Republicans who believe in government – especially that which delivers enormous amounts of pork to his state. No one did more than Cochran to funnel three times as much federal money back to his state than it pays in federal taxes. In the end, Republicans and Democrats there decided that they preferred the candidate who promised more pork to the candidate who promised no pork. And African Americans were spooked by McDaniel’s thinly veiled call for a return to white supremacy.

The fascinating question is whether Cochran’s appeal to black voters, with the implicit promise that he will do something for their interests (access to voting, healthcare, food stamps, poverty programs, education), will change black voter – Republican relations? It would be painful for the Democratic Party to see its lock on the black vote eroded. But, our democracy would improve if Republicans began to court black voters by seeking their votes and supporting their interests. Will Wall Street Republicans see the African American vote as a counter weight to the nihilist populist Tea Party wing of the party?

Don’t count on it.

After the June primaries, it would appear that the Republicans have avoided nominating unelectable candidates for the November elections. That continues to give them an even chance to win the Senate while holding the House. It does nothing to increase the chances of a Congress willing to govern rather than obstruct. But, the primary process has continued to show the deep divisions in the Republican Party which guarantee a continuation of the energetic war between its left and right. Their endless warfare is costly, exhausting and contributes to the deepening public distrust of government. Finding a 2016 presidential candidate able to unify the party in this climate is almost unimaginable. That will help Democrats. But, it holds little promise for the informed, rational, prudent and effective government that the United States, and the world, desperately need.