While some of my friends are rejoicing at the results of the national election on Tuesday others are discouraged. Opinions, at least among my friends, cover a wide spectrum. I suppose that should tell you something about me. Friendship in Christ trumps all politics in my private and public world! And love of neighbor outweighs political partisanship every time. I think that is what the Scripture makes plain and the rest is not nearly as important as we’ve made it.
But I do have a few opinions about what transpired. First, with the Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, in the biggest swing in power in 70 years or more, we must wonder what does this mean? If it means we have “shutdowns” of the government as we did in 1995, following the Gingrich triumph, then I think we will suffer and the GOP will pay for it in 2012. There are clearly better ways to oppose President Obama than these kinds of stunts and actions.
Second, should (or will) the GOP fastidiously pursue the agenda of the Tea Party movement? The results of Tea Party candidates were mixed but clearly there was new energy in the GOP because of this movement. Indications seem to be that the GOP leadership will feint right but legislate closer to the center. They will make it hard (impossible really) for the President to pass any of his left of center positions into law. They might even seek to create legislation that would force the President to veto some bills to show they tried to make changes but the President blocked them. This is politically shrewd but might also backfire in 2012.
A liberal commentator, the week before the election, asked: “Will the leader of this new coalition be Reagan or Gingrich?” I like that way of putting it. Reagan, for those who do not remember, rode a very conservative movement to the White House. After one brief attempt to reduce Social Security in 1981 he never seriously challenged federal spending again. He did, however, create tax reform with significant bi-partisan support. His rhetorical flights were so persuasive that many conservatives give him an iconic status today but most fail to realize that much of what they now want Reagan never seriously tried to pass as a two-term President. And the most recent Republican President, George W. Bush, spoke to his base and let government expand at the same time. This has angered some Tea Party advocates rather significantly.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, was much more literally-minded about his “Contract with America” in 1994. The GOP took their own anti-government rhetoric seriously and proposed a budget that would have slashed Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in 1995. When Clinton would not go along they shut down the government, a move that backfired to a large extent. Wall Street Journal editorials, friends of mine in leadership within the GOP and mainstream moderate pundits (not on the far right) all agree that we are likely to see more Reagan than Gingrich in the next two years. Republicans will make it hard for Obama to pass anything major that changes our direction significantly. They will also be very likely to work on stopping any increase in the federal debt. This will actually get bi-partisan support I expect. But huge cuts in entitlements are very, very unlikely. Freezing the hiring of new government employees is also likely to happen given the present jobless rate. It makes sense and could/should gain wider support in light of Tuesday’s vote.
The Tea Party Movement has a contract too. It calls for a balanced budget, a radical simplification of the tax code and strict limits on federal spending. The chance these will all come to pass in the next two years? Zero!
Campaigns are generally American theater. We get into them for a season but in the end we grow tired and want it all to mercifully end. Results are not taken too seriously by most after a few weeks have passed. (Count me among them!) We like to vote for change (witness 2008) but then we are not too sure how much of it we want today. There is a reason the status quo was so enduring in the 20th century and remains so in the first decade of the 21st. When it comes to actual governing the differences between most Democrats and most Republicans are not nearly as large as we think during an election cycle. Sigmund Freud once referred to “the narcissim of small differences.” I think this applies to our present parties.
A big issue in this election was cutting taxes. Is this a huge difference? Not really. Obama already promised them to 98% of Americans. Could we change the tax code radically, as Tea Party advocates say they desire? Not easily nor quickly. Ironically, the majority of Tea Party sympathizers (according to a Bloomberg poll) do not want to cut Medicare. Most would rather expand it!
What about repealing Obama Care? No chance! Any attempt is wasted effort since he can veto it. Why waste the time on what cannot be accomplished? America’s wealthiest pundit, Rush Limbaugh, says, “So what. Send Obama a repeal bill every week and make him veto it.” Steve Chapman, in the Chicago Tribune says, “That is about as likely as Rush Limbaugh running a marathon every week.” (Newsweek, in the November 8 issue, reports Limbaugh’s earnings for the year past were $58.7 million. Glenn Beck was second at $33 million. Sean Hannity came in third at $22 million.)
What about refusing to provide funds for the new health insurance program? Paul Ryan, the likely House Budget Committee chairman and a favorite of the Tea Party, says this is not feasible. The health care reform bill will not be overturned by the next congress, if ever.
Have we forgotten than our system does not allow “quick actions” on most major issues? This is a great strength in my opinion. What the GOP can do, and will do, is put the brakes on some things that trouble a majority of voters.
A little history is interesting at this point. When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans got control of the House in 1994 they promised a constitutional amendment on term limits. Do you remember what happened? Nothing! They also said they would abolish three Cabinet departments. Each is still standing and under the last GOP president we added another. And the 1994 revolution promised to restore prayer to public schools? How has that gone?
But the Democrats break promise after promise as well. They had control of Congress in 2006 and swept into power big time in 2008. One of their fundamental plans was to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How is that working? They also promised to abolish "ear marks.” What about that promise? They were also going to rein in the deficits? How did that work out in the last two years?
Politicians make all kinds of promises. They may even make them in good faith. But the work of governing is far more difficult than making bold promises and stating things in broadly general terms when you run for office.
I think there is an interesting observation to be made here. The GOP runs on anti-government ideology. The Democrats run on programs and passing and/or protecting them. The GOP runs on themes of liberty and small government while the Democrats run on themes of compassion and fairness. It has been happening throughout my entire life. However, when it comes to the specifics in governing the roles are often reversed. Democrats who like Social Security and Medicare experience broad support while Republicans know that sweeping cuts in programs bring on deep antagonism. (Consider Britain and France right now, both of which are far more down the road of socialism than anything in the U.S. Leaders are seeking to make huge cuts in entitlements to people and the protest is intense.)
All of this makes it hard for Democrats to connect actual policies, that seem reasonable and workable, to actual beliefs. Republicans, on the other hand, find it very hard to follow through on their ideas once they get the power. The question is simple: “What can the GOP do now that it has seized new power in an election?” The answer is very little in my view. Adds Steve Chapman, “In campaigns, anything is possible, and on Election Day, a lot can change in a hurry. Afterward, not so much.”
My deepest desire, which I expect few Christians will see in light of last Tuesday’s results, is that we will cease to put so much of our confidence in the political process and thereby give up our deep commitment to ideology and politicization. This might force some of us to go back to something called the gospel of Jesus Christ if we were wise enough to realize what has actually happened to us in the last thirty years. It saddens me to see how this process has created fear and loathing in the church.