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The Stranglehold on Our Politics

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
John Boehner standing next to a printed version of the Affordable Care Act during a press conference calling for its repeal, Washington, D.C., May 16, 2013

North Carolina provides the most dramatic example of what can happen to a state in just three years. It was formerly a progressive southern state, racially tolerant, and a proud leader in education. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008. But the Republicans won the legislature in 2010, and in 2012 they won the governorship. In addition, as a result of their redistricting after 2010, in 2012 they gained “super-majorities” in the legislature. Since then, the Republican governor and legislature have made drastic cuts in unemployment insurance and tax credits to low-income workers. The legislature is leaning toward passing proposals to reduce the number of teaching assistants and aid to college students, and it has cut the number of openings for children in state-run pre-kindergarten programs. Proposals are pending to flatten the income tax, expand the sales tax, and kill the estate tax.

The North Carolina legislature also passed a law to bar the courts from applying sharia law, making it the seventh state to do so. In reality, there’s no threat that courts will start interpreting the laws according to sharia doctrine, but Republican state lawmakers say they’re taking “preemptive” action. Oklahoma’s prohibition of sharia law was recently held unconstitutional by a federal court (as singling out a religion).

North Carolina has also adopted the most severe restrictions in the country both on abortion and on voting rights. It makes the impediments to voting that were used in 2012 seem meager by comparison. Its sole remaining abortion clinic is being shut down. North Carolina is one of the states that, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in June, was liberated from the requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that it get prior clearance from the Justice Department before making changes in its voting laws. Texas and North Carolina, both under Republican control, were the first to savor their freedom by making it harder than ever for minorities, students, and the elderly poor to vote. A former North Carolina Democratic official said to me, “They do all these things and then they pass voting rights laws to keep us from voting them out of office.”

In 2014, thirty-six governorships, an unusually large number, will be up for election, including in such important swing states in presidential elections as Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Until 2010, all of them but Florida were governed by Democrats and carried by Obama, but since then they have been governed by Republicans determined to impose highly conservative policies on previously Democratic states carried by Obama.

Who controls the country’s statehouses can matter a lot in presidential elections. For one thing, that’s where the rules and conditions for voting are set. In 2012 we saw the Republican governor of Florida and the attorney general of Ohio cut the number of polling places and the number of days and hours they were open in an obvious effort to limit the votes of blacks and other minorities, as well as poor seniors.

Though great numbers of voters rose up and insisted on casting their ballots, it’s still the case that large numbers—estimated at a minimum at hundreds of thousands—were prevented from voting. And in a close election a governor can be of significant aid to the national candidate: the state’s party machinery and the governor’s political network can be called on to help out. The ultimate example of how helpful a governor can be was provided by Jeb Bush in Florida in 2000.

As early as November of this year, two states, Virginia and New Jersey, will hold their contests for governor and senator. Usually of interest only to political obsessives, both states’ elections will be more widely watched for their implications for the 2016 presidential race, ridiculously early as it may be for that. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, a relatively moderate Republican, is generally expected to be reelected easily but if he runs for president the main questions are whether his pugnacious style will be popular outside the state and how he will deal with the party base.

Virginia is more significant for national politics because it’s a swing state in federal elections—it was crucial to Obama’s reelection victory. The Virginia race for governor this November is an embarrassment. The Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, who is even further to the right than Bob McDonnell, the current governor (who cannot run again), most famously wants to make consensual sodomy illegal in Virginia. That the proposal has been met with derision—and also some fright—and is clearly unconstitutional does not deter him.

Cuccinelli’s campaign is also suffering from the recent squalid revelations about McDonnell, who had already won national attention for backing transvaginal ultrasounds of women seeking abortions. McDonnell and his wife accepted considerable financial favors from a wealthy businessman whose products he then promoted—among other gifts, he picked up the cost of their daughter’s wedding and treated Mrs. McDonnell to a shopping spree at Bergdorf’s. Now Cuccinelli has been found taking favors from the same businessman, if on a more modest scale.

The Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, the backslapping politician and businessman and close pal of the Clintons, has a problem of his own: one of his companies is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. To assure that this got a lot of publicity and to try to counter Cuccinelli’s problems, the right-wing activist David Bossie, founder of Citizens United, which brought the famous case of that name to the Supreme Court, has made a film (Fast Terry) charging McCauliffe with sleazy business practices. For good measure the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, who is black, has called the Obamas communists who “don’t understand our country, I don’t think they even like it.”

Critical to the 2013–2014 midterm elections will be attempts to destroy the new health care law—the one issue the Republicans have found most effective for rallying their forces; that and “spending,” even as the deficit steadily declines, are the only two issues on which they have taken a real position. The obsessive attempt by conservative Republicans to prevent “Obamacare” from being implemented may be without precedent but it isn’t without purpose. By playing on people’s fears—proposed changes in health care arouse anxiety as no other domestic issue does—they are seeking to advance their own political cause. Even after it failed, “Hillarycare” was a major factor in the 1994 Republican sweep.

What began in 2009 as a movement to block passage of the health care program championed by Obama was transformed in 2010 into a furious reaction to its becoming law that was used as the organizing force in seeking Republican gains in those midterm elections. Since it worked then, why not have another go at it? The seemingly futile effort to repeal the law isn’t as silly as it seems. The forty roll-call votes by House Republicans to repeal it aren’t useless, even if there isn’t a chance that the Senate will agree. The Republican base strongly approves of these votes. The base has been mobilized around opposition to the health care law as a force for the midterms (and beyond) by the principal organizers and funders of the Tea Party in Washington as well as by the Heritage Foundation, the supposed think tank now headed by former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint. While in the Senate DeMint promoted Tea Party candidates for senator, several of them fools who flamed out. The votes not only help the Republicans raise money; they also provide protection for members trying to fend off attacks or challengers, enabling them to say, “I voted to kill Obamacare forty times.”

The Republicans are racing against the fact that some popular parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as the elimination of pre-conditions as a barrier for getting insurance and allowing parents to cover their children up to the age of twenty-six, have already gone into effect. If the complex health care program is seen as successful on the whole, Obama and the Democrats could get long-term credit for it, just as the Democrats did from Medicare. If the Republican fantasy were to come true and they somehow killed it off, Obama’s principal achievement will have been eliminated. Both parties understand that a health care program undergoing a lot of turmoil in 2014 spells trouble for the Democrats.

Egged on by a campaign run by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party stronghold in Washington, D.C., more than half (or twenty-seven) states have rejected the expansion of Medicaid for the ailing and elderly poor; and a majority of the states have also refused to set up the exchanges through which people can shop for medical insurance at presumably competitive prices. (This is partly a grandstanding gesture because the federal government will set up the exchanges in those states instead.)

FreedomWorks has urged people to burn their nonexistent “health care cards,” and it and other conservative groups are urging young people not to sign up for the new health insurance, and pay a penalty instead. The success of the plan depends on a certain number of healthy young people buying insurance on the exchanges in order to keep prices down for everyone else.

But in their zeal to eliminate a law that’s been passed and is on the books, congressional Republicans may have built their own trap. Whatever they do in the name of getting rid of the program or cutting it back is attacked by the most militant Republicans as insufficient; there’s always a more drastic proposal, and a demand from the base that they support it. A recent idea—backed by Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee—was that the government be shut down unless “Obamacare” is defunded. But some senior Republicans with memories of the calamity to their party caused by the Newt Gingrich–led shutdown in 1995–1996, as well as governors with national ambitions, were outspoken in calling this a stupid idea. Cruz, at the center of the effort, showed in his first weeks in the Senate that he’s not above McCarthyite tactics (as in the Hagel hearings); and he freely breaks the rules and understandings by which the Senate functions at all. Most uncommonly, he is actually hated and feared by most of his colleagues (including Republicans)—such strong feelings about a fellow senator are rare. The Harvard Law graduate and able advocate before the Supreme Court dismissed his senior Republicans’ concerns and in his mellifluous tone said that they were misreading history, and he carried on a crusade for a shutdown, which few of his colleagues liked.

But the ruffian Cruz overstepped and made a big mistake. As he traveled around with DeMint, he aroused great cheers from crowds at town meetings in August—but his colleagues held firm; no additional sponsors of the shutdown proposal came forth. Beyond that, Cruz and DeMint threatened Senate Republicans—true conservatives such as Tom Coburn and Lindsay Graham—who refused to back the shutdown with primary challenges. (Cruz is far more intelligent than DeMint but in defying the leaders of his party he is following his own agenda.) The base doesn’t mind if he’s unpopular in Washington, though.

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