Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Republicans Go After Unions and ACORN First

Kevin Drum agreed with my post yesterday about Republicans and Democrats, and has more:
I just finished a short piece for the next issue of the magazine about Republican efforts to push through structural changes that either permanently defund the left or reduce its voting strength. In the past, that included efforts to defund public interest law groups, ongoing battles to degrade the power of private sector unions, promotion of "pack and crack" redistricting that limited the influence of minority voters, and support of tort reform rules that hurt trial lawyers. More recently, it's included their assaults on public sector unions, the defunding of ACORN, and tenacious efforts to pass voter ID laws aimed at making it harder for minorities, the young, and the poor to vote.
I'll definitely look out for that article.

But then he asks: why?

I don't know the answer, but I'm willing to speculate a bit. I have two plausible explanations, one based on representation and one based on politicians and learning.

The representation answer is pretty straightforward: it's about promises. As Richard Fenno explained, the "promises" that politicians make when they run can be about policy and public policy, but they can also be about behavior ("I'll listen to the district"; "I'll use my business expertise") or even about identity. Of course, pols don't explicitly promise to "be" African American or Polish-American or a "real" Yooper, but that's the implicit promise many politicians make (and, by the way, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing at all). To the extent that GOP politics has become identity politics (and I thought the comparison of Sarah Palin to Al Sharpton was nice), then Republicans are mainly running on vague notions of "taking the country back" and their campaign promises have little to do with policy; indeed, policy, for such candidates, becomes symbolic of identity, rather than substantive. The next step is pretty obvious: if they've promised to their supporters that the other side is not legitimately entitled to share in governing, then the way to fulfill that promise is to focus on politics, not policy.

Learning? This explanation would center on two alternatives of how to take advantage of a good electoral cycle. One would be to focus on enacting as many policy priorities as possible while large majorities last; the other would be to begin by trying to lock in majorities, and then pass policy priorities only once those majorities are as safe as possible. I'd argue that neither strategy is necessarily the correct one, and that neither is inherently liberal or conservative. However, perhaps just as a chance result, the two most prominent Republican electoral strategists of the last thirty years -- Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich -- both happen to have been strong believers in locking in majorities. You'll recall that Rove was always yapping about William McKinley and the "permanent" GOP majority that he (and Mark Hanna) supposedly created. Newt, too; if I remember correctly, Newt was quoted repeatedly in John Barry's terrific "The Ambition and the Power" talking about his fear that Speaker Jim Wright would "consolidate power." Politicians learn from same-party experts, even if, as in this case, the claim of expertise is pretty dubious. So it's not surprising, then, that Scott Walker and other GOP politicians in 2011 are following the beliefs of Rove and Gingrich.

Again, this is speculative, but I suspect that the answer is found in some combination of those two possibilities.


  1. I think one of your own "Iron Laws of Politics," one with which I strongly agree, also helps explain it... As you put it, that everyone on one ideological side always believes the other side is better at the mechanics of politics. If you're a conservative, then you consider unions and ACORN as tools of the vast liberal apparatus, and "identity politics" as a whole as the exclusive province of liberalism. So it's only understandable that you see going after those vessels as a way of "leveling the playing field," especially since it's so easy to mobilize support when you do it.

  2. A long time ago Illinois Republicans sought to eliminate financial support from property tax lawyers to the most powerful ILL politicians by this legal change. It really didn't work.
    ........House Bill 1465 abolishes the Board of Tax Appeals in Cook County and replaces it with a Board of Review, effective January 1, 1996, and provides that taxes, assessments and levies shall be presumed to be correct but that the presumption is rebuttable. House Bill 1465 can be referenced as Public Act 89-126.

  3. doesn't his answer the question?

    op-ed in WaPo
    By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
    Sunday, March 6, 2011

  4. Stephen,

    I don't think so. They agree with Drum about what Republicans get out of it, but that doesn't explain why Republicans begin with that stuff while Dems begin with substance.

  5. One could interpret it as another (indirect) step towards the entrenchment of the corporatization of modern politics.

    Because, these action if successful, while unlikely to guaranty any sort of permanent majority for the republicans, will force the democrats to rely more on corporate funding and less on union funding. This, in turn, will move the democrats more towards many of the pro-business views the republicans support, therefore indirectly pushing pro-corporate policy.

    I'm not saying its a conscious policy, but it does follow the trend of the last thirty years.

  6. I think it's just a case of the Democrats seeking superiority by other means. When my conservative father talks about a liberal "power grab," he doesn't mean they're attacking conservative interest groups. What he's talking about is the government expanding in size. A new entitlement program creates supporters for Democrats. A new branch of government creates public employees who are supporters of Democrats. Drum sees expanding government as "substance," but it also structurally makes it harder for conservatives to win things.

    This all kind of depends on assuming that Democrats are the party of government instead of both parties using more government when they can, but I think that's kind of close to reality.

  7. Noumenon,

    If that was the case, Democrats would focus on expanding the number of public employees...but they don't really do that, either.

  8. I'm with Noumenon, though I don't think it is mainly about public employees, but rather policy beneficiaries.

    Democrats tend to believe that policy substance will improve people's lives, which in turn will tend to get their votes. Republicans take a zero sum (or even negative sum) view of government initiatives, so in their view the Dems are simply bribing favored groups.

    (Which is also why tea party types foam at the mouth over 'earmarks,' while GOP pols are as happy to grab pork for their districts as anyone. Better me than thee.)

    Didn't a prominent New Dealer say "tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect?" And didn't Bill Kristol warn Republicans, in 1994, that HillaryCare, if enacted, would prove enormously popular and be impossible to get rid of?

    Perhaps in the current era of 'keep the government's hands off my Medicare' this relationship has broken down in real life. But I think it still affects how pols and activists of both parties look at things.

  9. If that was the case, Democrats would focus on expanding the number of public employees...but they don't really do that, either.

    I took this to my dad for argument and he brought up the Department of Energy, which is too small to count, and the mythical 16,500 IRS agents. But, while I did more research to try to understand why total government employment wasn't growing, I happened upon some additional categories:

    By 2005, the federal government employed 14.6 million people: 1.9 million civil servants, 770,000 postal workers, 1.44 million uniformed service personnel, 7.6 million contractors, and 2.9 million grantees. This amounted to a ratio of five and a half "shadow" government employees for every civil servant on the federal payroll. link

    Is it possible the Democrats are growing the postal workers, contractors, and grantees instead of official government workers? (Not sure if grantees should count as employees anyway.)

    I can't think of why that would be, so I'm going to say you've won at least half this argument: Democrats may want to increase the number of government beneficiaries, but they don't want to increase the size of government. I did not know that.

  10. Jonathan, my other comment got eaten, but it basically said that you got me to research and agree that the Democrats don't seek to increase the number of public employees. (Contractors, who knows?) So their only chance at a power grab would be to increase the number of beneficiaries of programs and hope those people actually remember which party voted for what.

  11. ...and I found and rescued the earlier comment. Sorry, the blogger spam filter is pretty cranky these days, and needs a lot of positive-action tending that, alas, I often forget to do.


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