07 October 2013
Two theories of government, but only one country
The Republican stand against the Affordable Care Act is contemptible, but it also happens to be legal. Democrats can rail on about how Republicans should not do this or that, but they have no legal leg to stand on, that I can see, if they claim that Republicans can't do these things. Meanwhile, Republicans may feel confirmed in their suspicions that President Obama aspires to a more authoritarian Presidency, as long as Democrats keep arguing that the 2012 presidential election somehow strips Republicans of their rights or the House of Representatives of its powers. Here is where two starkly different theories of government distinguish themselves. Many Democrats seem convinced that Obama's re-election settles the question of "Obamacare" beyond dispute. At most, they argue that Republicans have no right to repeal, defund or otherwise mess with the ACA until the GOP retakes control of the Senate. At worst, they seem to claim that Obama's re-election puts a burden of deference upon the opposition. We've all seen or heard this argument by now. It fits a certain notion of democracy but it isn't consistent with the Constitution. That certain notion is that the President, by virtue of his election, has a mandate to have his way until the next election. It's the assumption implicit in the "authoritarian" tactics allegedly practiced in some of the other democracies around the world. But before we give Republicans too much credit, or any, for resisting this assumption, we should remember that they were firm believers in a mandate enjoyed by George W. Bush that was in no way compromised by the controversial circumstances of his first election. Then, they were just as convinced as Democrats are now that a President was entitled to have his way without taking into account the size and vehemence of the opposition. On the other hand, Republicans could argue that the law recognized Bush as President and did not require him to take the narrow margin of his victory or its disputed validity into account. Meanwhile, as Senator Cruz and others have pointed out this month, Democratic Congresses have shut the government down in the past -- sometimes in defiance of Democratic Presidents, and sometimes due to disputes between two Democratic-controlled houses of the legislature. What's novel now, it would seem, is the assumption that the ACA is non-negotiable. It's nice to think so, but merely thinking so doesn't guarantee that Speaker Boehner will crack before the October 17 deadline for raising the debt ceiling -- which is itself another arbitrary rather than Constitutional rule enacted less than a century ago. Ideally the ACA shouldn't be subject to negotiation because there shouldn't be such hysterical opposition to it. The opposition exists, however, and it controls the House of Representatives. The country is currently stuck with the sort of concurrent majority that wouldn't exist under a parliamentary system of government, in which you can't be the head of government unless your party controls the legislature. Of course, the Founders didn't think party would factor into government the way it has -- more correctly, none of them suspected that their own beliefs would turn "partisan" so soon after ratifying the Constitution. Moreover, because they distrusted political power, they designed a system to check democracy, and did it so well that politicians seem to keep finding new ways to check it. Today's Republicans consider it their duty to check democracy -- to the extent that they recognize Obama's elections as democracy in action -- whenever it threatens to damage the economy or limit individual liberty. Democrats either deny the Republican assumptions about the consequences of Obamacare or argue that the ACA should be tried before it's rejected, letting democracy take its chances. A handful of Republicans have been arguing for some time that their party should let Obamacare happen, on the assumption that it will fail and that Democrats will suffer for the failure. The majority in their party apparently feel that the economic consequences will be too grave for them to let it happen in the expectation of political gain later. But isn't democracy on some level about letting the people's will happen -- not without safeguards for certain individual rights, of course, but without the knee-jerk bad-faith presumption prevalent among today's Republicans that the public sector can't do anything right. Conservatives in general are fond of reminding us that the U.S. is not a democracy, but the American people might take advantage of this crisis by asking whether it is democracy, whether they want more democracy -- and how they might do that.