Nullification is not politics as usual

Coming off of a second place finish Ignatieff was presented with a dramatic offer by two other parties to form an unprecedented coalition government and become Prime Minister in place of the incumbent Stephen Harper.  Ignatieff rejected the idea and the office out of hand.  In his words, “You can make coalitions among winners.  In our case it was a coalition of losers.  How were we to explain to the voters that we were throwing out a government duly re-elected?”

In other words, in a democracy elections matter.  This is a lesson that the Republican Party has rejected over the past two decades as it increasingly seeks to practice electoral nullification.

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In 2008 President Obama ran on a platform that included healthcare reform.  He was elected by a margin of 9.6 million votes and an even larger majority in the Electoral College along with a Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress.  Keeping true on his pledge, the Affordable Care Act was passed and signed into law.  The Republicans, not accepting defeat, challenged the constitutionality of the law, a position rejected by the Supreme Court.

The Republicans made repeal of the law a major theme of the 2012 presidential election only to have President Obama  re-elected comfortably by 5 million votes and another solid majority in the Electoral College.  Since passage the Republicans in the House have voted to repeal the law 42 separate times, an act of futility since repeal is not possible given the Democratic majority in the Senate. Refusing for seven months to appoint members to a customary conference committee to negotiate a federal budget, House Republicans waited and forced a partial shutdown of the government and are threatening to take the U.S. into default unless that law is defunded.

This game began in 1993 when having lost the presidential election Congressional Republicans unleashed a series of witch hunt investigations in an effort to neuter the Clinton presidency.  The new breed of Republican leadership that took control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections overturned a Congressional tradition of seeking legislative compromise– in favor of perpetual insurgency in which bipartisanship became a dirty word.

Losing again to Clinton by an even larger margin in 1996 the Republicans sought to nullify that election by what a majority of the Senate and the American public saw as an abuse of the Constitutional power of impeachment.  Clinton had clearly done some improper things, but the acts – identified after a carte blanche investigation that endured fully seven of the eight Clinton years at the cost of at least $70 million – were more private failings than the type of abuse that the Framers had in mind when creating this removal power.  Sadly, occasionally one again hears the same loose talk of impeachment by some House radicals although disagreeing on policy is not an impeachable offense, but rather the lifeblood of a democratic system.  It was most certainly not intended as a way to nullify national elections.

The Republicans have come in second in the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  They hold a majority in the House, in spite of receiving 1.4 million fewer votes nationwide in the last election, thanks to crass gerrymandering of Congressional districts. The GOP is in the minority in the Senate where they have vigorously used the filibuster in which senators from states with just 12 percent of the population can block the will of overwhelming majorities.  Now the party is doubling down on this strategy by gearing up programs to suppress voter turnout in 2014 and 2016.

One would have thought that the issue of nullification had been extinguished for good by the Civil War.  In words eerily similar to the current day Abraham Lincoln wrote: “What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten… In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum.”

Wise is a businessman and resident of Annapolis, who publishes frequently on public policy.  He holds a graduate degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.