The unfortunate turn against performance politics in US elections

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That is how conservative Republican hero Ronald Reagan famously framed the 1980 election. Several decades later, many observers are at a loss to explain what the 2014 congressional contests will be about — even though most pundits have already declared Republicans the winners.

In fact, the radicalized GOP apparently on track to “win” at the national level — in an off-year election with a skewed set of Senate contests at its core — is a party that espouses a politics of obstruction and government destruction, not performance politics.

{mosads}Although almost all Americans are economically better off and major recently enacted reforms such as the Affordable Care Act are working surprisingly well, large swatches of the Republican Party call for tearing down all that has been accomplished — and are running an election about little more than opposing and ridiculing the Democrat in the White House.

Reagan’s 1980 pitch spotlights an older style of political competition where parties and candidates contended over who could deliver more and better jobs, education, healthcare, and peace and security abroad. Many voters punished President Carter that year for clear evidence of high inflation, unemployment and massive international breakdowns including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian seizure of American hostages. When Reagan later sought reelection in 1984, peace abroad and economic recovery boosted his cause.

Republicans also once stood for modifying — not tearing down — effective social programs. Bitter fights accompanied the inception of Social Security and Medicare, but partisan politics moderated after these programs took hold and delivered measurable security to millions. Under Republican President Eisenhower, both parties embraced Social Security and started to compete over who could better manage and adjust it. Republican President Nixon sought to cement the loyalty of senior citizens by proudly taking credit for boosting Social Security benefits and making them automatically adjustable so inflation would no longer threaten seniors. President George W. Bush similarly made a play for the votes of seniors by championing a substantial expansion of Medicare to include a new entitlement to prescription drug coverage.

Today, by contrast, we live in an age of extremist government-bashing Republicanism, with party clashes disconnected from everyday life. The idea of rewarding — or punishing — incumbents based on their performance in using government to enhance opportunity and security has given way to ideological position-taking. Democrats are not immune to this pathology, but in recent times, and especially in the Tea Party era, almost all Republicans have embraced government-destroying obstruction for its own sake and rarely propose ways to make public policies perform better.

Republicans offer no plausible proposals to build infrastructure, create new jobs, solve the housing crisis, resolve the dilemmas facing 11 million undocumented immigrants – or ensure affordable healthcare for all Americans. Indeed, continued GOP calls to repeal or eviscerate the Affordable Care Act are the most telling sign of the party’s refusal — in national politics, at least — to acknowledge a constructive government effort and engage in discussions over how to make it work better.

A large and growing body of independent evidence shows that the Affordable Care Act has expanded health insurance coverage to millions of formerly uncovered Americans, has moderated premium increases and prevented insurance company abuses — and has accomplished these things even as overall cost increases in healthcare are cooling off. Democrats and other supporters of health reform agree that adjustments need to be made in many specific parts of the new law — but congressional Republicans and GOP aspirants to the 2016 presidential nomination of their party continue to denounce “ObamaCare” as a total failure and call for its outright repeal. They won’t engage to work out improvements, even though, if they did, conservatives could win many modifications they would like. Right-wing ideologues are still pushing court challenges, however tenuous, that they imagine could bollix up a working public policy.

None of this is going to succeed. Affordable Care Act reforms are here to stay. But continuing obstructive and destructive efforts speak volumes about the contemporary Republican extremism.

Glimmers of hope may be coming from states where GOP performance politics has made a bit of a comeback. In Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Utah and Tennessee, governors and business-oriented GOP state legislators have found (or are groping their way toward) compromises over health reform implementation and other issues ranging from education funding to prison reforms. But going into November 2014, Republicans on the national stage continue to compete among themselves over who can best obstruct and tear down any government efforts Democrats and President Obama support. That is unfortunate, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country.

Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the University of Minnesota. Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Both are members of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Tags ACA Affordable Care Act ObamaCare Republican Party Social Security

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