The GOP trainwreck

Today I grieve for American politics.

I’ve been watching my friends on various social networks as they reacted to the results of last night’s election, and it has struck me odd to see how happy so many people are that Barack Obama won. It’s alien to me not because I don’t understand—and to some extent approve of—the reasons he won. I do. I predicted months ago that Obama had the election pretty much sewn up. Mitt Romney was a lackluster candidate at best, and ran one of the most incompetent campaigns of any candidate I’ve seen run for President. Mitt lost because he couldn’t convince his own party that he was any more than the least bad choice. His own party didn’t believe it, so the swing voters weren’t convinced and he certainly didn’t win over any Democrats.

Last night as it became clear that Obama had won I found myself profoundly disappointed. I didn’t understand why until I realized that I would have been just as (if not more) disappointed if the election had gone the other way. Somewhere along the line I have lost hope in the American political process, and it’s not because Obama won. It’s because I don’t know how we can succeed while convincing ourselves that the lesser of two repugnant options is a mandate.

Am I more relieved that Romney lost than I would have been if Obama lost? I don’t know. I’m certainly relieved in different ways. I despair for a nation whose best hope is picking a candidate who fails to represent our values slightly less than the other guy.

To be sure, our nation would have survived four years of Romney and will survive four more years of Obama. A recent article in Reason Magazine compared the US Constitution to a well-designed airplane: it’ll still fly if three out of the four engines fail. The analogy is dead on. The Constitution still protects us despite the assaults on it from the left and right alike. But for how much longer can we continue knocking engines off our wings? Can our nation survive another forty years of putting the second-worst candidates in positions of great power?

Decisions between right and wrong are easy. The difficult choices are between two things that are right. The two major political parties in America present us a false choice: that we can have fiscal and economic sanity or social and civil liberties, but not both.

How the political parties see one another

It is difficult to believe that liberals in America think that we ought to indiscriminately spend more money, but it is certain that they believe passionately in social issues: freedom to marry, a woman’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy, access to medical services, the political power wielded by corporate entities, and whether children in public schools ought to be indoctrinated with Christian theology. It would be naïve to ignore the fact that some of these aims are expensive to address and likewise naïve to believe that these issues can be adequately addressed by government even with great expense. Nonetheless it is this set of issues which primarily drive those who lean to the liberal side in America. Republicans are scary to these people because even in today’s relatively dismal economic environment, we enjoy tremendous prosperity. Taxes creep incrementally and come in the form of tax «cuts» that actually make the tax code more complex and make taxes higher for most people. If you’re not thinking slippery slope, taxes aren’t a huge issue for many people. Perhaps they should be, but in that light balancing somewhat higher taxes against the threat of back-alley abortions and their gay friends (or selves) being treated as second-class citizens, yes of course the Republicans are scary.

Similarly it is hard to believe that the majority of voters who lean to the right care so strongly about the definition of marriage, the Federal Government’s mandate to investigate medical procedures, or prayer in schools that they are willing to drive the nation into bankruptcy over it. The right cares about reducing the federal debt and sustainable (if not balanced) budgets and are correctly skeptical of government’s ability to solve the problems society faces even if we do spend trillions of dollars in the attempt. Democrats are scary to these people because the way that government spends taxpayer money is not sustainable and there is no scant historical precedent1 for the idea that we will stop spending beyond our means as soon as things «get better.» In that light, yes of course Democrats are scary.

If we vote only based on our fears, we will continue sinking. It’s like falling into quicksand. If we keep trying to pull our feet out, we will get sucked farther in. But if we calm down we can keep our head aloft and work our way out of the morass.

Here, however, the blame must fall on the Republicans, because they are both more correct and more wrong. They are correct in that the slippery slope of taxing and spending isn’t getting any less slippery and isn’t getting us more results. This is not absolute; there are things that government does successfully. But we ought to be taking a very hard look at what government is doing poorly and charging us a lot for.

Where they are wrong is on social issues. Even if they aren’t wrong about social issues, they are wrong to place a higher importance on those issues than on the economic health of the nation. Because the Republicans at least sort of have the right idea economically, it is unconscionable that they won’t compromise on social and civil issues. And by «compromise,» I’m not talking about sitting politicians making deals with other politicians. I’m talking about what kinds of candidates they keep offering.

Let’s take three hot-button Republican issues; those issues no Republican can be nominated without toeing the party line on: freedom to marry, abortion, and school prayer.

Freedom to marry

First the definition of marriage. We’re arguing over the definition of a word and a few tax breaks. The tax breaks are negligible and words in language are constantly changing. If you don’t believe that, I call your attention to the word «gay.»

Second point about definition of marriage: is it even an issue that ought to be decided by the Federal Government? If you’re a Democrat it’s understandable that you think the answer is yes, but if you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to believe in the Tenth Amendment and the limitation of Federal power. So even if you believe that ceding ground on the definition of marriage is dangerous, oughtn’t the Federal government stay out of the way so that same-sex couples in Iowa can have the freedom to marry while they don’t in Texas?

Third point about the definition of marriage, and fair warning that it is a point I will repeat: even assuming you disagree with me on the above two points, there are substantial numbers of voters out there that would love to vote for economic sanity if it didn’t mean voting for a candidate that opposes the freedom to marry. Is it worth alienating those voters?

To clarify: it isn’t that the issue isn’t important. It is important to Democrats. It’s a deal-breaking issue for Democrats. It’s difficult to fathom why Republicans think it’s more important than having a solvent nation. In case that wasn’t clear: anyone who believes that calling it a «civil union» instead of a «marriage» is more important than repealing Obamacare is not a Republican. Said person is an idiot.


Here, I can see why the pro-life faction places so much importance on the issue. If you believe that human life begins at conception, terminating human life is killing. And killing without life-threatening justification is murder. I even understand why one wouldn’t want exceptions for rape and incest. In the case of rape we ought to punish the rapist, not punish a Constitutionally-protected United States Citizen who did nothing wrong. I don’t agree that a zygote should enjoy all the Constitutional and legal protections that a human being who can survive outside of the womb can, but if I did, I’d probably agree with all the rest.

However, even if I did agree about that the life of the mother is a very important consideration. It’s self-defense. If you have to kill someone to protect yourself it isn’t considered murder. There are different standards in different states, but the concept is consistent. If the presence of the unborn child—even a Constitutionally-protected citizen—threatens the life of the mother, the mother has the absolute right to defend herself against that threat to her life.

This gets tricky in a few ways: first because it’s unclear how severe the threat to life needs to be in order for an abortion to be «medically necessary». Is a 90% chance that the mother will die «medically necessary»? How about a 50% chance? Heck, if I were in a situation where there was even a 1 in 1000 chance I’d die I’d want to do whatever was necessary not to be that 1 in 1000.

But it is worse than that: medical situations—especially life-threatening ones—are time-sensitive. Once someone’s dead that’s it. There has to be leeway for medical decisions that seemed to be the right and necessary thing to do at the time, even if on reflection or provided with later evidence it proved not to be necessary. Medical decisions don’t come with a bookie’s point spread and foresight is rarely 20/20.

But it’s even stickier than that. Who gets to make the determination whether an abortion was medically necessary, justifiable self-defense, or homicide? A federal bureaucrat? A sheriff’s deputy without advanced medical training? A doctor other than the patient’s own doctor? Someone without access to the patient’s medical records and history? Well, maybe. But then you’d need to get the patient’s medical records and history and testimony as to the specifics of the medical situation. Medical records are privileged information that in most cases cannot be released to a prosecutor without a subpoena. So is any information that doctors and patients provide one another. Moreover, if you are prosecuting a crime, the Fifth Amendment provides near-absolute protection against the patient or the doctor providing any testimony against themselves.

So what am I saying here? Just that even if I agreed with the pro-life faction on the principle, I can’t see any way to enforce any anti-abortion laws without repealing a substantial part of the Bill of Rights. And that is something to which I am categorically opposed.

Even ignoring this, how can any Republican justify supporting a federal ban on abortions? At the state level OK, but federal bans? Every piece of proposed federal antiabortion legislation has explicitly claimed standing under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause.2 So let me get this straight: you can claim to be a Republican and at the same time advocate expanding the scope of what the Federal Government can do using the Interstate Commerce Clause as justification? With a straight face? Sorry, but I’m filing that one under Not In Line with Republican Values. Besides, unless the patient pays for the procedure in one state and then the doctor performs the procedure in another state, how can an abortion possibly be related to interstate commerce?

By requiring that a candidate for federal elected office be vocally in favor of pro-life legislation, the Republicans alienate voters who would be on the side of fiscal responsibility except for the fear of the FBI investigating miscarriages. That’s a lot of reasonable people who would love to vote Republican except for this deal-breaker of an issue. I understand that it’s a deal-breaker for Republicans as well, but Republicans will have to let go of that. Why? Because any victories Republicans will have on this issue will be out of line with Republican values and will be entirely pyrrhic—at best symbolic—ones.

School prayer

Once again, Democrats fear government endorsement or promotion of religion. Even if they are being overly cautious or overly sensitive, it’s still a pretty important part of this nation’s founding principles. What do Republicans lose if they let go of this issue? Their kids might have less time in school where they have to sit quietly and do nothing.

Sorry, this too is not worth throwing away our country’s economic stability over. You send your kids to school so that they can work hard and learn information, not to sit quietly doing nothing. Personally, I’m a big fan of sitting quietly doing nothing, but that doesn’t mean it ought to be part of a public school’s curriculum. If you want your child to pray before starting the day, shouldn’t you be doing something about that at home, before your child leaves the house and goes off to school?

Besides, I’m pretty sure that Jesus had something to say about praying in public.3

What am I asking for?

Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for handing Obama the election. Republicans thought that putting a Republican who was fiscally moderate on the ticket would get them the votes of independent and swing voters. By doing so they misjudged the importance of their own message. So long as Republicans keep scaring off socially progressive and fiscally conservative voters, Republicans will keep losing elections. Americans are hungry for economic reform, but increasingly Americans are turned off by the planks in the Republican platform concerning social issues. That trend is only likely to increase. Regardless, those are the issues that don’t even matter very much to most Republicans with the exception of abortion, and that’s an issue where Republicans can at best hope for a feel-good measure that doesn’t change anything.

I’m not asking that Republicans compromise Republican values. I’m demanding that Republicans return to Republican values, and get their priorities straight. You can complain about Obama running the country into the poorhouse all you like, but Republicans are the ones who chose Mitt Romney, a candidate doomed to failure because he compromised on the important issues and stood firm on the meaningless ones.

What is distressing is that the GOP shows no signs of learning from that mistake.

  1. As Paul Kienitz kindly pointed out, this is incorrect. There is historical precedent. ↩︎

  2. Article I, Section 8, Clause 3: [Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes; ↩︎

  3. Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. ↩︎