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Donald Robinson: Our take-no-prisoners politics

I was not being cynical, nor hostile to Gov. Romney. In fact I have sympathy for the man, and I do not mean that in a condescending way. The fact is, our system of government is headed for serious trouble.

It is sometimes asked why the Republicans presented such a poor crop of potential nominees this year. Actually the field included outstanding people, among them, Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China; Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana; and Rob Portman, senator from Ohio. Many analysts thought Huntsman would have been the party’s best bet. Both Daniels and Portman did not enter the race. Their soundings convinced them they could not compete with Romney, who had better name recognition, an impressive staff and financing.

That left a succession of challengers to Romney, all from the party’s right wing. To head them off, Romney had to mount an energetic appeal to his party’s right. Having won the nomination, he performed an “etch-a-sketch” maneuver (the term was applied by his own staff), virtually wiping the slate clean as he scrambled back to the center for the general election campaign.

If we ask, Why did the Republican Party select, from that field, someone with a record so vulnerable to the charge that he has no principles, the answer is that Romney leads a fractured party. Any major party in America must be a big tent; you cannot pull together a majority of voters in this country without blending incompatible elements in your appeal. Successful political leaders, from Jefferson to Lincoln, FDR to Nixon, Reagan to Clinton, have all done that.

Even in that context, however, Romney’s challenge has been monumental. That is because the right wing of the Republican Party has introduced a new thing to American politics: a parliamentary-style political party, ideologically clear and highly disciplined.

The phenomenon is analyzed in a recent book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” It argues convincingly that the Republican Party in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, has moved far to the right and is prepared to risk serious damage to the country in pursuit of its radical goals.

Beginning with Gingrich’s tenure as Republican leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Republicans have become a national party, rather than a federation of state and local parties, and much more programmatic. Gingrich was deposed as leader in the late 1990s and an old-style politician, John Boehner, took over. But when President Bush the younger took the government into two costly wars and a huge prescription-drug benefit, all unfunded, the party’s “young guns” were horrified, and a crisis developed within the GOP. Rallying around Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan and reinforced by Tea Party-inspired newcomers to Congress, the right-wing took over the Republican caucus in the House.

The impact was felt by Boehner as he tried to negotiate a Grand Bargain with President Obama to reduce the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. It also affected Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans. As negotiations to cut $100 billion from the 2011 budget were getting under way, McConnell warned Republicans not to “help Barack Obama get re-elected” by appearing unwilling to reach a deal.

By mid-summer, he had changed his tune. He gave Cantor and the Tea Party faction credit for blocking the Grand Bargain and promised that the next time raising the debt ceiling came up, Republicans would re-ignite the battle to cut spending and block any increase to taxes. “I expect,” he said, “the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.”

This take-no-prisoners mentality has had a profound impact on American politics. Our constitutional system, centering on the separation of powers and checks and balances, requires compromise and cooperation to get anything done. Whoever is elected will be caught between conservative activists who have shown that they are not frightened by warnings that their tactics, carried too far, could propel the national and global economies toward catastrophe, and Democrats in the Senate, led by Dick Durbin of Illinois, who will use every tactic at their disposal to prevent the repeal of Obama­care, Dodd-Frank and other major achievements of the past four years.

No matter who wins in November, the American constitutional system is in for its most serious test since the Civil War.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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