Albert Hunt had a column this past Sunday that made a surprising claim: Republicans are actually very lucky that Obamacare exists or else their internal fighting would be even more prominent. Here’s Hunt:
Republicans are thankful for President Barack Obama’s health-care law; it provides a respite from their bitter schisms.
The government shutdown and the near-default were devastating for the party. If it takes a drubbing, as expected, in the Virginia gubernatorial race this week, there will be fresh recriminations.
This is wrong. The bitter schisms exists because of Obamacare. Imagine what party unity would look like if Obamacare didn’t exist. There wouldn’t have been a disastrous shutdown fight that split the party into two factions, one looking to use it as leverage to stop Obamacare and another wanting to fight another day.
Many commentators have noted that the internal divisions in the Republican Party are mostly ones of tactics, not policy. John Boehner did everything in his power to keep his party unified by listening to the extremists. However, while this satisfied the Tea Party, it infuriated many Senate Republicans and moderates in the House. For Boehner, this was the better option, but the result is an establishment that says it is ready to take on radical candidates in primaries next year. Without Obamacare, none of these divisions take place.
The majority of Hunt’s column focuses on immigration reform and the dangers it pose politically for the Republican Party. This danger is magnified by Obamacare as well as the government shutdown that sent their favorability plummeting to historic lows. Without Obamacare, the party would have a higher approval rating and a bit more room to ignore popular policies such as immigration reform. The defund strategy only puts more pressure on the GOP to do something constructive for the country.
Hunt is correct that HealthCare.gov’s catastrophic start has given the party something to rally behind, but this “respite” is just that. It’s a small break from all the infighting over tactics that Obamacare has caused the GOP. On the contrary, the party would be more unified and in a much better position politically if the Affordable Care Act didn’t exist. Republicans certainly aren’t thankful for it.
It’s election day today and there are a couple of important races. First, in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe is likely on his way to become governor as he holds a sizeable lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Cooch has received little financial support in the race, alienated women with his positions on birth control and has simply been seen as too extreme for most Virginians. There is also a libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, on the ballot who has cannibalized some of Cuccinelli’s support. In the lieutenant governor’s race, the Republican Party nominated someone even more radical than Cuccinelli in E.W. Jackson. Democrat Ralph Northam is likely to win in that one. The most competitive race in Virginia is for attorney general where Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obershain are neck and neck going into today.
Out in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is set to win reelection over Democratic candidate Barbara Buono by a sizeable margin. Many commentators believe that Christie has spent the last few days aiming his message not at New Jersey residents, but at Republicans throughout the country in anticipation of a presidential run in 2016.
The most important race, though, is the Republican primary in Alabama’s First Congressional District, a special election after Rep. Jo Bonner took a job at the University of Alabama earlier this year. This race pits the establishment candidate Bradley Byrne against far right winger Dean Young. The winner of today’s primary will easily win the general election in this very red district and both men will likely have identical voting records in Congress.
Byrne, while still very conservative, is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NRA and other business groups. On the other side, Young has received little support from Tea Party organizations throughout the country. Instead, he has focused his message entirely on social issues, particularly gay marriage, and has tried to out-conservative Byrne. Despite the disadvantage in money and national support, polls show that Young’s strategy may be working. Turnout is expected to be low since it’s a special election in an off-year, an advantage for Young whose extreme rhetoric will rally people to get out and vote.
The implications for this race stretch far beyond Alabama though. This is the chance for the moderate wing of the Republican Party to show that they can defeat a fringe candidate. As Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy points out, there are few, if any, actual policy differences between the two. Instead, this election is symbolic. This is a race that the establishment should win. There are so many things lining up in Byrne’s favor that a loss here will demonstrate what an uphill battle it is for the moderate wing of the party.
Murphy’s piece does a good job outlining Byrne’s advantages:
He’s received more money and support than Young
He has a solid conservative record
Young was unable to name the House GOP Whip or Treasury Secretary (Seriously)
Young is a birther
Bonner and Jack Edwards, another former Congressman from AL01, endorsed Byrne
This should give Byrne a sizeable lead, but it hasn’t. The race is still very tight. Luckily for the GOP, nominating Young won’t risk losing the seat. The district is too conservative for that to happen. If Young loses, the Tea Party won’t be particularly upset. They realized that there was no purpose in getting involved in this battle as both Young and Byrne will vote the same in the House. All it does is risk an embarrassing defeat. Thus, Tea Party groups have not intervened at all (something Young is not happy about).
The establishment and business wing of the Republican Party thought differently though. They saw a way to defeat an extreme candidate and have made a sincere effort to do so. A victory would be a reminder that they can defeat conservative candidates, but it wouldn’t be much of a win. After all, the limited support Young has received means that the establishment is not really taking on the Tea Party here. They are taking on a radical candidate with almost no outside support. That makes a defeat very embarrassing. Is the establishment so inept that they can’t take a solid conservative candidate, provide him with generous donations and defeat a right-wing nutjob who can’t name the House GOP Whip? That would not be a good sign for the party’s ability to challenge more well-supported Tea Partiers in races next year.
Last week, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) delivered an address at the Heritage Foundation focused on the future of the Republican Party, on both political and policy grounds. What many people don’t realize is, he might just be that future.
His tax plan is the most serious piece of Republican legislation that anyone in the party has proposed since Obama took office. He does away with the conservative dream of a flat tax and instead opts for a two bracket system, a 15% rate for individuals making less than $87,850 (double for married couples) and 35% for those making more. The focal point of the plan is a new $2,500 tax credit for every child a family has. Most importantly, the credit applies to both income and payroll taxes so that low-income families who don’t itemize can take advantage of it as well. Lee would also cap the mortgage interest deduction, create a new charitable deduction that’s available to all tax filers and gets rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. The plan aims to collect revenues equal to about 18-20% of GDP.
Wonks and political analysts all over the internet praised Lee’s proposal. but it has received limited attention on the national stage. Instead, Lee is most well-known for the government shutdown, of which he was a fierce supporter. The futile strategy has sent Lee’s approval rating plummeting, with many Utahns insisting that the senator become more willing to compromise. But Lee’s tax plan is a compromise. He doesn’t insist on absurdly low revenues or a huge tax cut for the rich. It’s unclear how progressive (or regressive) the plan is, but it’s a legitimate opening proposal. That’s exactly what Utahns want.
This is what makes Lee’s decision to become Ted Cruz’s sidekick all the more intriguing. Lee could become the face of a new, serious, policy oriented wing of the Republican Party, taking cues from conservative reformists such as Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam and others. Why become a wacko bird and build a reputation as a non-serious thinker? Few people outside of Utah and Washington know of Mike Lee and those who do don’t think of him as a wonk, but that’s exactly what he is.
At Heritage, Lee spoke in platitudes about the future of the Republican Party. More policy proposals will come in future speeches, but he did touch on a couple of other topics that are legitimate conservative ideas as well. He proposed reducing the gas tax over time, putting states in charge of the nation’s highways and mentioned that states could fund it with congestion pricing. In education, Lee wants to give states the right to determine accreditation for student aid. However, the main focus of the speech was pushing the party to adopt a new policy agenda:
By the time we reach November 2016, we will be as far away – chronologically speaking – from Reagan’s election as Reagan’s election was from D-Day. Yet, as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s era agenda like a security blanket. The result is that to many Americans today, especially the underprivileged and middle class or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office, the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all. This is the reason the GOP can seem out of touch and it’s also the reason we find ourselves in such internal disarray. The gaping hole in the middle of the Republican Party today – the one that separates the grassroots from the establishment leaders – is precisely the size and shape of a new, unifying, conservative reform agenda. For years we’ve tried to bridge that goal with tactics and personalities and spin, but it doesn’t work. To revive and reunify our movement, we must fill the void with new and innovative policy ideas. Today, as it was a generation ago, the establishment will not produce that agenda and so once again, conservatives must. We must.
Lee’s new policy agenda should not stop at infrastructure and student aid though. He should continue his focus on smaller government by reforming our intellectual property laws so that they are fit for the modern world. This is an untapped area where conservatives can propose solutions that will restrict the size of government and have them gain mass appeal. Lee should jump on that opportunity. He should also implore states to reduce housing and occupational licensing restrictions, both of which will lead to increased economic growth. Farm subsidies and corporate welfare are also areas that he should attack.
However, proposing these ideas to a favorable crowd of D.C. insiders is not enough. To have any effect, Lee must make an impact on the Republican Party on a national scale. That’s his next challenge. How does he transition his image from one of reckless sidekick to thoughtful reformer? Doing so is not easy. But liberals should not take the difficulty of that as reason to ignore the young senator. Through his antics, Lee has earned the valuable support of the Tea Party. If he is able to earn national attention for his ideas, he’ll possess the dual credentials as radical Tea Partier and serious conservative policy wonk. That role was once misleadingly filled by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who somehow managed to gain credibility as a serious thinker while proposing a budget so extreme that House Republicans couldn’t even pass the policies this summer. After Ryan’s defeat on the Romney ticket last year, that office is empty. Lee now has the opportunity to fill it.