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Beyond raising the debt limit: What a Republican government would be like

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 19, 2011 | 5:18 pm

The western front of the United States Capitol.

The western front of the United States Capitol.

The battle over raising the debt limit has raised a lot of concern about how Republicans act as an opposition party. They have shown that they are willing to risk crashing the economy to get their way with a Democratic president. But they won’t be in opposition forever. We have to start thinking about what they would be like if they were actually in charge. 

If Republicans win the White House in 2012, hold the House of Representatives and either win the Senate or get close to a majority, they will be able to carry out their agenda without worrying about either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. (A slim Democratic majority in the Senate will fold like a house of cards if Democrats lose the White House.)

If you want to know how the current iteration of the Republican Party might act in power in Washington, just look at the states in which Republicans won big victories in 2010. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once famously referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy.” Republican governors and legislatures are moving with ruthless speed to impose their visions on state after state, and the results are not pretty. It’s easy to see these approaches appearing nationally should they enjoy a big political win in 2012.

First, a number of Republican governors have engineered fiscal crises in their states by cutting taxes. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker opened his governorship by pushing through a series of tax cuts, and then used the budget deficit to cut education and other social programs and to attack collective bargaining. Ohio’s John Kasich eliminated the estate tax that had funded local governments and also ended a moratorium on a cut in the personal income tax rate, worsening the state’s deficit. 

Should Republicans win greater national power, they will have an opportunity to create the mother of all fiscal crises. They are likely to immediately make all the Bush-era tax cuts permanent, which would create a massive fiscal crisis that they could use to justify cuts in social programs beyond anything we have seen. If you actually care about deficits and debts, you will pray that the Bush tax cuts expire next year before there is even a chance of Republicans getting into power. Beyond that, I expect a tax-cut frenzy leading to a bidding war to see who can cut the most. Forget about any further talk of debt and deficit, except as an argument to defund programs Democrats favor.

On another front, Republican-led states have been working overtime to narrow a woman’s right to choose. Anti-abortion laws in state after state are edging ever closer to testing Roe v. Wade. Operating largely under the national radar, the anti-choice forces have placed pro-choicers on the defensive. A Republican Congress and president could adapt these laws nationally.

Third, these states have been working effectively to undermine the ability of Democratic-leaning groups to vote, by creating new requirements for voters to show picture IDs at the polls. This bogus reform, based on the mythical existence of voter fraud, is aimed directly at minority, elderly and working-class voters. Voter ID laws are spreading through the states like wildfire, without any pushback from the Obama administration’s Department of Justice. It is easy to imagine a Republican national regime that would immediately create a national voter ID law, and that the Supreme Court would uphold it. A new Justice Department would, like the Bush version, actively and enthusiastically support voter disenfranchisement.

Republicans don’t dislike governmental power. They only dislike government when Democrats run it. Then it is tyranny, and Republicans are Jeffersonians. Republicans like power and believe they are the only ones legitimately entitled to exercise it. They will not hesitate to carry out their policies, even in the face of unpopularity. The new Republican governors have been charging headlong to get their way — the opposition and the public be damned. When they are in power, they are pure Hamiltonians.

Do you think Republicans are big advocates of states’ rights and the 10th amendment? Fasten your seat belts. A new Republican regime will pass laws to restrict states from passing laws that are more progressive than national law. The first casualty will be the global warming law in California, but you can expect other laws in big blue states to be preempted.

Check out Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. He has basically taken over local government in Michigan through a law giving him the power to appoint fiscal administrators to void contracts and privatize city services without any role for the voters. So, once the Republicans get back into power, all those brilliant insights into the Jeffersonian roots of the Tea Party movement can best be used to line your birdcage. 

We don’t know what else ascendant Republicans would do, but they will certainly make a serious effort to repeal the Obama health care law. In that case, we would return to the pre-2009 system of private insurance, largely unregulated. Interstate deregulation of health care plans will take its place as the main reform, and insurers will migrate to states with less regulation. In any case, new national legislation will preempt much state regulation of health insurers. And presumably, the first steps toward privatizing Medicare will be on the table.

The modern Republican Party is a fairly strange creature, despite the fact that most Republicans voters are not strange at all. The advent of Tea Party conservatives, who control the primaries and therefore the party itself, and their rejection of compromise, have changed the rules entirely.

Today’s Republican Party is blisteringly angry in opposition, calling Obama, who has proven to be a mild, consensus-oriented Democratic president, “Hitler” and threatening to tear the house down if he does not comply with its members’  demands. When they hold power, they seem more unwavering in their certainty than any major American political party with which we are familiar, believing that their way is the only way and everybody else had better get out of the way.

The next generation of Americans will have to figure out how to bring this Republican Party back into the world where the rest of us live. This angry, alienated party, bolstered by talk radio and Fox News to only one point of view, is a challenge for a generally mild and pragmatic democracy to accommodate. We face a continuing cycle of out-party rage and in-party bullying that makes politics and government a rockier road than it should be. We are foreclosed from considering a vision of better schools, repaired infrastructure, fair taxation, health care for all, and all the other things that most Americans think are pretty good ideas because, as with the debt crisis, we are constantly putting out fires set by today’s Republican Party.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

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