The First Step Is to Make the Other Political Party Admit We Have a Problem

Compromise is not going to be popular in next year’s presidential election. How can Democrats and Republicans come together in finding solutions when they don’t agree on what our problems are?

Democrats want to do something about global warming, income inequality and the precarious legal situation of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. They want to do something about child-care costs and the meager availability of maternity leave, as well as the student-loan debts being shouldered by young adults who can find only low-paying jobs. For the most part, Republicans either don’t admit that these problems exist or believe the free market can solve them better than anything the government can do. They have little incentive to engage Democrats on these issues.

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Republicans see a different set of crises. They warn about high tax rates discouraging entrepreneurship, and they claim spending on Social Security and other entitlement programs is spiraling out of control. They want a balanced federal budget, and they want a more muscular foreign policy to restore America’s image abroad. Democrats largely believe that these are scare issues that will be used against them no matter what they do.

The differences between the parties in an era without a unifying fear (no Cold War, no Great or near-Great Depression) were underscored by an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Asked for “the top priority for the federal government,” a slight majority of Republicans picked “national security and terrorism” (27 percent, vs. 13 percent among Democrats) or “the deficit and federal spending” (24 percent, vs. 9 percent among Democrats). Most Democrats went with “job creation and economic growth” (37 percent, vs. 21 percent among Republicans) or “health care” (17 percent, vs. 4 percent of Republicans). Another notable difference: 17 percent of Republicans ranked “religious and moral values” as the first or second priority for the federal government, forming a potentially important bloc in the GOP primaries, while only 4 percent of Democrats did the same.

British results argue against bipartisanship

Perhaps some calamity will capture the focus of both Democrats and Republicans over the next year and a half, but our spells of concentration seems to be getting brief. The Republican Party, for example, showed interest in immigration reform for only a couple of months after losing the 2012 presidential election, before realizing that their most loyal voters were quite happy with the inaction of Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” strategy.

Champions of bipartisanship surely hope that everyone forgets about last week’s election in Great Britain, which was a triumph for the Conservative Party but a disaster for the other political parties that gave cover for the Conservatives’ austerity policies. Until last week, the Conservatives held power only through a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, the ideological equivalent of the Democratic Party in America. But while the Conservatives gained enough seats in the House of Commons to reach a bare majority, the Liberal Democrats were practically wiped out of existence, and the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson writes that party leader Nick Clegg made a grave mistake: “Clegg…appears to have got his comeuppance for joining forces with [Conservative Party leader David] Cameron as Deputy Prime Minister, and especially for going back on a campaign pledge not to raise university fees…. [M]any young Britons now look at college as a debt-acquirement exercise, despising Clegg as a result.”

Also in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane eulogized the Liberal Democrats in a way that could be read as a vindication of the Republican Party’s strategy of loud and sustained opposition to President Barack Obama’s policies: “There was a school of thought that, simply by entering into government at a difficult time, rather than sitting back and relishing the luxury—and the untested ideals—of perpetual opposition, the Lib Dems had shown an unwonted strain of courage. If so, they were punished for such presumptuous behavior, and sent back to the wilderness from which they had come.”

At Mother Jones, Ruy Teixeira notes that the Labour Party (long the only real alternative to the Conservatives but traditionally closer in ideology to Bernie Sanders than to Obama) had tempered its opposition to the Conservative agenda: “[it] did not propose to break decisively from the pro-austerity policies of the Tory government. Indeed, the Labour Party election manifesto promised to ‘cut the deficit every year’ regardless of the state of the economy.” The Labour Party also had a horrible election night, losing almost every seat in Scotland, traditionally its strongest region, to the Scotland National Party (SNP), which offered voters a more direct poke in the eye to the Conservative Party.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for 2016, does not have to worry about losing votes to a secessionist party (sorry, Cascadia!). But the equivalent of Labour’s defections to the SNP would be Democratic voters simply staying home next November, and Clinton’s supposed moves to the left may be the only way to meet the challenge of turning out the Obama coalition for a third consecutive election.

Different wish lists for Democrats and Republicans

The two major American parties are simply talking past each other. Teixeira argues that the Democratic Party “has moved steadily away from deficit mania since 2011” (which would be a repudiation of one of Bill Clinton’s proudest achievements, a balanced federal budget) and may be “the torchbearer…for social democratic progress” in the wake of poor showings for leftist parties in Britain, Canada, Australia and other democracies.

Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, apparently subscribes to this theory. Last week the Daily Beast reported on his plans to unveil “a progressive ‘Contract with America,’ a 13-point agenda intended to push the Democratic Party leftward.” David Freedlander writes, “de Blasio will call for a number of measures for which he has already pushed in New York City, including national paid sick leave and free, universal pre-kindergarten and afterschool programs.” De Blasio’s platform also includes a $15 minimum wage, the refinancing of student-loan debt, and immigration reform. The list of demands is clearly meant to energize the Democratic base; prodding the Republican-led Congress to action on these issues is not politically feasible.

The Republican list of top issues for 2016 will take longer to evolve, thanks to the greater uncertainty over the party’s nominee. The Atlantic’s David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush takes a shot at it (“What Republicans Can Learn from British Conservatives”), urging his fellow Republicans to emulate “real conservatives” abroad. Frum suggests giving up the fight against the Affordable Care Act (since universal health coverage is part of an “advanced modern economy”) and coming to terms with same-sex marriage. Instead, he wants the Republican Party to be “unapologetically nationalist,” advocating “an immigration policy determined by the national interest, not the interest of would-be immigrants.” He also wants the GOP to stand “tough on terrorism, extremism, and international disorder,” and he unsurprisingly praises Britain’s Conservative leadership for cutting taxes and reducing government spending.

It’s easy to imagine Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio signing on to this agenda. Mike Huckabee, one of the party’s anti-establishment candidates, is a different story. Not only is he more committed to emphasizing moral issues (such as his opposition to same-sex marriage), he is departing from the GOP script on entitlement reform. The New York Times reports that he is vowing to oppose any reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits, vowing, “I’ll never rob seniors of what our government promised them and even forced them to pay for.” Maggie Haberman writes that Huckabee is thus running “against the emerging orthodoxy of the party’s elite,” who are embracing such changes as means-testing benefits and raising the retirement age.

Reforming Social Security is exactly the kind of risky move that is dependent on party unity, since American Democrats are unlikely to follow the lead of Britain’s decimated Liberal Democratic Party and join hands with the GOP. Few give Huckabee a realistic chance of winning the nomination, but if he wins a few primaries, he could shorten the list of problems that only the Republican Party deems worthy of attention.

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