Wednesday, May 10, 2017

George Washington's fateful warning.

Perhaps there is no polling on deep yearning, but a fair share of American had to have watched the French election that culminated on Sunday with a sense of sadness. Faced with declining popular support for the mainstream conservative and liberal political parties, and a rising threat from the far right, those mainstream political parties came together to support a moderate centrist alternative. It could not happen here.

Early last year, as he considered launching his independent bid for the presidency, Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker and government finance minister who is now the President-elect of France, looked at a political landscape that was not so different from ours. The demographics of discontent--stemming from globalization and immigration--and resentments of urban elites in France, mirror those that culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. French politics--like ours--had historically been dominated by traditional center-left and center-right political parties that had lost their luster, while--as across Europe--an energized nationalist populism was growing on the right. 

Against that backdrop, Macron ran a stridently centrist campaign: pro-trade, pro-Euro and pro-European Union. In the first round of voting, he won 24% of the vote against a field that included candidates from the major parties and Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing National Front. He then defeated Le Pen 66% to 34% in the second round run-off. 

The closest parallel in our politics might be Michael Bloomberg. An economic conservative and social liberal, Bloomberg took a long look at the growing dysfunction of our politics--and the yawning chasm of dissatisfied voters stranded between a Democratic Party that has headed to the left and a Republican Party that has long veered to the right--and in 2016 he considered an independent bid for the presidency. 

But we are not France; ours is winner take all system--for the most part--on a state by state basis. We do not have a provision for run-off elections among the top two finishers that might allow an independent challenger to build an alignment of moderates from both parties, as took place in France. As Marco Rubio observed when he explained why he was endorsing Donald Trump--a man whom Rubio had railed against as a fraud and a con man--our system forces a binary choice on Election Day, when the animosities engendered by the political parties come into vivid relief and ultimately rule the day. Against that backdrop, Bloomberg decided not to run. 

In his Farewell Address, George Washington reflected on the destructive consequences of party politics. "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge... is itself a frightful despotism... It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another."

But for the idiom of the day, Washington's words could have been written this week. The frantic drive to repeal Obamacare, on display over the past month, has been nothing if not sharpened by the spirit of revenge, distracted public councils, ill-founded jealousies and false alarms. House Republicans finally came together to pass legislation that had no grounding in either sound policy or politics--it was driven simply by a misguided sense of party loyalty.

Republicans have been promising to repeal and replace Obamacare for seven years. What has been unclear from the outset is how much of the repeal and replace urgency was driven by hatred of the law itself, and the changes to health insurance markets that it engendered, or simply hatred of Barack Obama himself. Public polling over the years has shown greater public support for the Affordable Care Act than for Obamacare--two different names for the legislation--suggesting that opposition to the Affordable Care Act among the Republican base might not be as strident as many in the GOP came to believe it was. 

The oddity of the Trump presidency has been the willingness of Republicans to follow him in lock-step, even if the loyalty only goes one way. House Republicans acceded to Trump's demand that they take a second shot at passing repeal and replace legislation, even as many saw rising anger among their constituents as it became apparent that the proposed legislation might undermine their access to health insurance. For Trump, it was not about the details of the legislation, but rather about having a televised Rose Garden event where he could tout his victory. And if the price of a Rose Garden ceremony is greater suffering among his supporters in eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan--or even the loss of GOP control of the House--that is a price he is willing to pay.

The firing of Jim Comey is going to escalate the demands of party loyalty to new heights. As with the healthcare vote, the President will demand party loyalty on an issue that benefits him alone, and could easily damage the political futures of those who accede to his demands. Few in the GOP can truly have believed Trump's initial explanation that he fired Comey because of Comey's conduct of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and evidence is increasingly pointing to the original sin of the Trump campaign: Russia. Republicans in Congress may not know what happened with respect to Trump campaign collaboration with Russia in its efforts to influence our presidential election, but they do know that Donald Trump wants those investigations to stop, and he needs their help to make that happen.

The ball now rests firmly with Republicans in Congress. Marco Rubio never relented on his conclusion that Donald Trump is a con man and a fraud, he simply embraced Trump as his party's con man and fraud. With the firing of James Comey, however, Rubio and his brethren will have a tougher assessment to make. As George Washington warned, party politics can lead people down a precarious path, where loyalty to party overwhelms loyalty to country, "and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty." Two hundred thirty years later, Washington's words ring true.

In France, with its different election structure, two largest political parties set aside their differences and turned their energy toward the election of a centrist, rather than risk the rise of a right-wing populist demagogue. Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for our nation's political institutions and the constitutional separation of powers, and he has shown little tolerance for those who take an independent stance against his own interests--legal, political, financial or otherwise. At some point, Republicans in Congress will come to realize that their blind loyalty is a fools errand; Donald Trump has no interest in them, in their goals, in their reelections, or in their party. He has taken their measure, and he has decided that they do not have the courage to defy him. They are but means to his ends. As long as that remains true, both they and the nation, as George Washington foresaw, may pay a terrible price.

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