June 17, 2014
Last week featured two of the most stunning twists of fortune in Virginia political history, and it would be remiss of me not to make a few observations. The latter event took place near the epicenter of the (seismic) earthquake of August 2011, an intriguing coincidence. In both cases, the right wing of the Republican Party claimed a big victory, and the main question that arises is what will be the ultimate result of what they have wrought.
First, Democratic State Senator Phil Puckett abruptly announced on Sunday June 3 that he was resigning effective immediately, thus giving the Republicans a 20-19 majority in the State Senate. He said he did this to pave the way for his daughter to be appointed as a state appeals court judge, but he was also promised a job on the state tobacco commission. (The fact that such a seemingly obscure post might be more desirable than state senator is itself a sign that something is out of whack in Virginia.) See Washington Post.
This came in the midst of a huge showdown over the question of whether or not to expand Medicaid, as is envisioned under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Republicans were jubilant that they could block that policy move, while Democrats were outraged and accused Republicans of making a corrupt vote-buying deal. (The FBI began an investigation, but it's hard to say how far it will go.) Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. I oppose Medicaid expansion, but I don't like the way the impasse was finally resolved. In high-stakes contests like this, politics often gets down and dirty.
For context, State Sen. Emmett Hanger (Republican) proposed a few weeks ago a compromise that would take the Medicaid question out of the budget to prevent the possibility that the state government might shut down. (See newsleader.com.) However, that effort was rejected by State Sen. Dick Saslaw and of course later became moot when State Sen. Phil Puckett resigned. It showed that the Democratic leaders were willing to risk disaster to get their way on a key policy issue, and I think that was an unwise strategic choice. Indeed, the way the Democrats were in effect holding the budget hostage just to get Medicaid expanded was just plain wrong.
Late in the week, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a budget bill which included an amendment by State Senator Dick Black specifically forbidding the Governor from bypassing the legislature and trying to enact Medicaid expansion based solely on executive authority. Whether that amendment is really binding, or whether the Governor can simply do a line-item veto of that provision, remains to be seen.
This whole episode is another illustration of how the system of government in the Old Dominion is becoming more and more dysfunctional, held hostage by opposing hardline factions. So for me, one lesson is that anybody who really knows what's going on in Richmond right now is probably part of the problem!
Then two days after the Puckett "earthquake," there was another shock, perhaps even bigger. In the primary elections on Tuesday, incumbent U.S. Representative Eric Cantor (who as House Majority Leader has the second-highest rank in that chamber) lost in his bid to be renominated. Virginia law prohibits primary election candidates from running as independents in the general elections, so that option is out.
All of a sudden, there were a million different explanations for what had happened. I freely admit that I wasn't paying much attention, partly because I am rather indifferent as to which faction prevails in the Republican Party. I have no particular affectionor inclination toward either side. All I knew was that several of my Tea Party friends on Facebook had been trumpeting this guy's name for weeks, and I figured they were chasing a foolish dream. Wrong!
Tuesday evening I listened to Dave Brat speak for the first time, and I was fairly impressed. With an educational background and general outlook (libertarian) similar to mine, I became sympathetic. (He has a Ph.D. in Economics from American University, and I have an M.A. degree in the same field from the same school.) Soon, however, I learned that he has rather strong religious views and that those views influence his positions on economic policy. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal.) I'm going to have to think about that for a while. In general, I favor keeping religion as separate from public policy as possible. To learn more about the likely (but not certain) U.S. Representative from Virginia's Seventh District, see: davebratforcongress.com.
So was Brat's victory a sign that the Tea Party has regained its mojo and is becoming ascendant once again? In recent months there were signs that the GOP Establishment had belatedly realized what was going on and struck back against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (See nationalreview.com.) Not so fast! Or was it just general disgust with the Washington establishment, with which Eric Cantor is very much involved. (He was indirectly implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal which gravely hurt the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections; see my blog post from January 2006.)
Many people emphasized how the issue of illegal immigration shifted the balance toward Brat, and many on the left used the occasion to dump on the Republicans and especially the Tea Partiers as a bunch of lazy, hateful, xenophobic hicks. As someone who has long advocated serious immigration reform, even before it became popular in the Republican Party (see for example November 2004 and May 2005), and who has likewise condemned the nasty, divisive approach that casts all immigrants as law-breaking welfare cheats (see for example May 2007, scroll down), I deeply resent such insinuations! I will just say that Rep. Cantor lacked firmness and conviction on an important issue, and frankly he strikes me as one of those big business pals who really doesn't care about illegal immigration, as long as more cheap workers keep coming.
Former Delegate Chris Saxman had an op-ed column in which he drew two basic lessons for Cantor's defeat. #1) Challengers don't win, incumbents lose. #2) Relationships require work. See newsleader.com. In other words, Cantor simply failed to do the necessary politicking with the folks back home, who came to see him as an elite Washington insider.
And then there are less polite explanations for the big upset loss by Rep. Cantor. Ring of truth? 'Nuff said.
Virginia's new governor, Terry McAuliffe, has oscillated between making pleas for pragmatism and bipartisanship on one hand (as his inaugural speech in Richmond would indicate), versus a hard-edged partisan power play on the other hand. You really can't blame him, as he finds himself in a difficult position vis-a-via the legislative branch, especially now that his party no longer controls the State Senate. I was disappointed that many Republicans refused to even give the new governor a chance, refusing the customary courtesy of a "honeymoon" period. I thought that was a missed opportunity to take the moral high ground.
On the first of March, I was there when Governor McAuliffe paid a visit to Augusta Health in nearby Fishersville. He met with doctors, hospital administrators, and other executives to promote his push for Medicaid expansion, a key part of Obamacare. While the Governor was speaking with reporters inside Augusta Health after the meeting, there was a rally by those who oppose expansion of Medicaid outside the hospital complex. The Shenandoah Tea Party played a key role in this demonstration, and I only found out about it since I'm on their e-mailing list.
About a half mile away at Eavers Tires, meanwhile, Republican leaders held a rally to express opposition to the Democrats' plans. I was there as well, and spoke with some of the local legislators. The event was sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, one of the most active groups opposing the employer mandates under Obamacare. One participant at that rally noted that State Senator Emmett Hanger was nowhere to be seen, and I agreed that Hanger's absence was unfortunate.
The government shutdown last October was not only unnecessary, it was downright idiotic. Was there ever a real chance that the Democratic majority in the Senate was going to cave in and agree not to fund Obamacare? No. The only reason why millions of American lives were disrupted as the government shut its doors as Fiscal Year 2014 began was that the Tea Party faction of the GOP wanted to prove to their "Base" that they would push their particular agenda no matter the consequences. It was a disgraceful charade that didn't fool any serious political observers, but all across the Fruited Plains, legions of gubmint-hatin' "grassroots" roared with approval. Once House Speaker John Boehner set aside his deep reservations and went along with the doomed gambit, it was clear that the Republican Party was no longer equipped to govern the nation in a responsible fashion but was merely a tool of certain well-organized and well-funded extremists.
So, to return where we started, the defeat of Eric Cantor in last week's primary election merely drives home the point just made: Whatever you may think of the Tea Party's agenda (and I admit to having certain sympathies), the practical effect of their actions is to cripple the Republican Party as an institution. This comes as no surprise to me. After Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 election, I knew that the hardline conservatives would pin the blame on the moderates, further distancing the political dynamics within the party from the practical necessities of governing. Simplistic solutions and delusions about reality have come to rule the day. Those in the "Republican Establishment" (whatever that is) who thought they could placate or tame or even coopt the Tea Partiers by tossing a few bones here or there were gravely mistaken. They probably never realized what was really behind that movement, and they richly deserve the turbulence that has been unleashed by their failure to counteract in prompt fashion.