When we redeem an item we purchased, we ask the retailer to take it back. When we seek redemption for ourselves, we ask another to take away our guilt or take back the harm our action(s) may have caused to ourselves or to others. In either case, redemption is not possible unless we ask for it, thereby specifically admitting we need redemption. But our request will not be answered without the expectation of reform. Although politics is not religion, both require an honest assessment of the need for redemption, reform, and a redeeming agent. In the case of religion, we can confess our sins, promise to do better, and ask for God’s forgiveness. In the case of politics, redemption similarly requires an admission of political malfeasance and a proposed plan for reform before asking the electorate for a second chance.
Both political Parties have behaved badly in the past. They have, for example, prevented the very possibility of the compromise required in our bicameral two-party legislative system. The majority Party can bury a bill in committee or limit debate, effectively suppressing the voice of the minority Party. As a result, legislation beneficial to a significant number of people may never come up for a vote. Likewise, the 60-vote rule in the Senate can prevent a bill from being debated or voted on the Senate floor. The immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship is a case in point. It was proposed by President Bush during his second term. But the Democrat controlled Senate never had the opportunity to vote on the bill because not enough Senators joined in the cloture vote on June 27, 2007, to provide the needed 60 votes. During the Obama presidency, the Senate passed a similar immigration reform bill; but it never reached the floor of the Republican controlled House for an up or down vote. In both instances, Congress gave insufficient consideration for whether a majority vote might better serve the general interest of the public. These failures served to perpetuate the many problems associated with undocumented immigrants, including workforce distortions, job inequities, shadow communities, and so on. They are examples of political malfeasance.
At times both Parties have shown themselves incapable of wielding majority power for the greater good. For years I railed against the Democrats for failing to live up to the promise of those civil liberty reforms they won in the sixties. Now I criticize the Republicans who have abandoned the reasoned and pragmatic governance they advocated in the eighties and early nineties. Of course, both Parties argue positions that differ from the other. And those debates are necessary in our republic. But neither should ignore the need to address the issues that concern and divide the nation as a whole: two decades of stagnate middle class wages and an inadequate minimum wage; rising healthcare costs (at a lower rate since the ACA, but still rising faster than inflation); wealth and opportunity inequality; unaffordable higher education; criminal justice inequalities; and the subversion of the plebiscite by money and political malpractice, including gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, lobbyist controlled agendas, and extravagantly financed campaigns committed more to propaganda than ideas.
Since 2009 Republicans have been caricatured as the “Party of No.” During the Obama Presidency, congressional Republicans initially opposed the President’s proposals for a trillion-dollar stimulus bill to counter the Great Recession before they eventually agreed to an amount comparable to President Bush’s bank bailout amount. They declined to ratify the Trans Pacific Trade agreement or even consider funding an infrastructure bank proposal, even though free trade agreements and an infrastructure bank have long been favored by Republicans. They aggressively contended and tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which included the private insurance healthcare exchanges they previously proposed. Although they never supported the ACA’s Medicare bailout or Medicaid expansion, the basic idea behind the bill was initially outlined by the conservative Heritage Foundation and proposed by Senator Dole, a former Republican candidate for President. This failure to act on what Republicans previously believed to be in the best interest of all Americans is what I believe most would term political malfeasance. Moreover, their rationale for this failure is equally suspect: they refused to give a Democratic President any legislative achievements because he was too liberal, too popular, and too likely to be reelected unless they obstructed his every initiative.
There are at least two crimes that are unforgiving in our American system: intolerance of those who are different in kind, belief or ideology; and refusal to serve those universal values enshrined in our founding documents. The former precludes compromise by excluding empathy for others or their perspectives, while the latter demeans our democratic institutions and the very idea of America. That idea is a set of values, specifically, equality, justice, liberty, security, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare. Our Constitution clearly identifies these values as the principles upon which rest the promise of a more perfect union. It does not, however, admit their subversion. When elected officials refuse to vote on legislation that embody these American values, they subvert them and the government they support. Moreover, they are choosing narrowly defined political interests over the general welfare of those who elected them.
Is it any wonder why Congress has such a low approval rating or how gridlock suborns compromise? When intolerance can influence debate over immigration of non-white or non-Christian minorities, have we lost any sense that “all humans are created equal?” When, after 70 years of warnings, Congress is still unable to fortify our infrastructure against increasingly destructive climate cataclysms, have we lost any sense of insuring “domestic tranquility” or promoting “the general welfare?” How can equality and liberty be maintained if healthcare and economic opportunity are preserved only for the privileged and not for every citizen? Long before the modern era, Aristotle recognized that inequality breeds instability. Surely, individual Republicans understand this risk. But they appear to be held hostage to a leadership that supports narrow constituent interests and to a wealthy donor network capable of funding their reelection.
On July 25, Senator McCain delivered a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate in which he urged his fellow Republicans to resume regular order and to work across the aisle with the minority Party. He correctly pointed out that no major legislation, except the ACA, has ever been passed solely on a partisan basis. He urged his Party not to duplicate the process that created the current healthcare system by repealing and replacing it in like manner. His was a landmark speech, not only because of the urgency of the moment, but also because of its potential pivot point in Party redemption. While stating the case for redemption, however, he overlooked the full extent of Republican malfeasance. This current version of Republicanism has taken governance to a new low in its attempt to pass legislation without support of any organization operating within the healthcare system and without concern for the well-being of millions of Americans who would lose healthcare. Of course, Republican Party leadership is still smarting about how the ACA was voted into existence on a partisan basis. Their resentment is palpable. But they fail to acknowledge, as McCain intimated with his insistence on regular order, that every constituent and legislator was given the opportunity to contribute to the ACA, including 26 days of floor debates, committee mark-ups, and over 100 Republican amendments. Earlier Republican obstructionism now has morphed into Republican circumvention of regular order and, more significantly, into a disregard for the health and well-being of the people they were elected to serve.
Precisely because Republicans have control over all branches of government, we must demand that they acknowledge Congressional failures, reform their positions, and seek political redemption. Could there be a more appropriate time for a political party to govern wisely and responsibly in the interest of all Americans? As the lyricist says, “the times they are a’changing.” Not since Andrew Johnson have we had a President so antagonistic to the American system of government and so out of tune with the will of a majority of the electorate. While judges can stop criminal or unconstitutional actions of this Administration, only members of Congress can initiate laws that can curb or limit the powers of the President or even override his vetoes, if necessary, in the interest of serving the general welfare.
Senator McCain has created an historical opening for the majority Party to subordinate their ideological and tribal conceits to the greater good of working for the general welfare of all Americans. And, of course, the minority Party will have little or no leeway to do otherwise. The beneficiary will be the American people. As McCain reminded us, no important legislation—whether it address healthcare, tax reform, infrastructure, or authorization to use military force—should be passed without bipartisan support. America’s biggest failure in this regard resulted in a Civil War. Before his death, Senator John C. Calhoun foretold the possibility of a secession he did not support. Secession would be inevitable, he feared, if he could no longer negotiate compromises on the admission of slave states. Today, failure of our elected representativeness to work together promotes the same divisiveness and can lead to a similar breakdown in our union. As this administration attempts to weaken many of our democratic institutions, America cannot withstand gridlock or Republican pique in the legislative branch of our government. We should not conclude America immune to what the Germans experienced in the 1930s under one-party rule (Gleichschaltung).
Obstructionism is obviously not a good recipe for governance in a democracy. But, at times, it can become a statement of principle. And therein lies a deeper problem that more accurately mirrors Calhoun’s dilemma. Compromise becomes impossible when it involves principled positions. Calhoun believed just as firmly in the superiority of the white race and the beneficent administration of slavery as the Republicans today believe that the Federal government should neither dictate healthcare policy to the states nor tax the wealthy to support lower income citizens’ healthcare needs. Although still dealing with the aftermath of slavery, most Americans now accept that the principle, “all men are (indeed) created equal,” defines race prejudice as morally wrong. Today Americans are faced with the advent of a new principle: healthcare is a right for everyone, not a privilege reserved for the few who can afford it. (Reference, “The Republican Path to Healthcare.”) When the American people adopt a principle, they clearly give direction to their representatives. In any democracy, opposing the majority is futile. Calhoun, a Democrat, did not live to see the outcome of his obstinacy. But this current version of Republicanism promises us that we will.
Every two years Americans vote for the future they want for our nation. Between those Federal elections, we trust our elected representatives to serve the values we share as a constitutional democracy governed by rule of law. That trust is violated when they fail to serve those values, choose not to govern, or, more pointedly, redirect the anger their political malfeasance triggered towards their political opponents. It is time for the Republican Party to reform itself. In the political arena, admission of error may appear to be suicidal. But courage requires such admission when a greater good is sought, such as the welfare of all Americans. Whether it is healthcare, equality, justice, security, or the fair conduct of elections, no elected official should act without regard for the people he or she is elected to serve. Political redemption for the Republicans begins with a change of direction. That change will be sufficient admission of past malfeasance. For example, it must entail support of the ACA exchanges and cessation of attacks on its subsidies, funding, and operational support. Why not act to make the American healthcare system better—worthy of regard rather than ridicule? And, furthermore, why not stand up to a President that diminishes American institutions and our status in the world rather than emboldening him by an obsequious silence?
I would prefer to see the Republican Party aligned with Americans on values, rather than by inflaming their anger. I would prefer they debate the Democrats on policy without misrepresenting facts and those principled values enshrined in or inspired by our Constitution. I would applaud any Congress—whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats—that would curb or even censure President Trump for his spiteful, divisive words and actions that spur anger, confusion, and repulsion amongst Americans and our allies throughout the world. The Republican controlled Congress can still rescue us from President Trump’s dark vision of our country: “America doesn’t win anymore”; “our allies are taking advantage of us”; “the American dream is dead”; and “only I can save it.” His words recall the trope of certain twentieth century dictators rather than his prescribed role in a tripartite government as a President committed to the ideals of a democratic republic. Much worse, his actions are already threatening the healthcare of millions, destabilizing our alliances around the world, provoking antagonisms with armed adversaries, and steering Federal departments away from their stated goals into possibly irreversible dysfunction.
In other words, I encourage Republicans to live up to their conservative heritage and to preserve those values that have made America great. We are a nation inspired by ideals and motivated by the courage to act on them. Those ideals and courage can and will earn Republicans political redemption. The majority Party needs to govern in the interest of the majority. By redeeming itself, the Party will redeem Republicanism, win over the electorate, and defend the republic from future foreign influence campaigns or opportunistic demagogues. If political redemption can save democracy, then America will be saved.