Constitutional Law, Conservative Views, Classical History and Literature

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In July, 2017, legislation to “repeal and replace” Obamacare collapsed in the U.S. Senate. In short order, a proposal just to repeal Obamacare was also blocked, chiefly by two Republican senators (Murkowski and Capito), who voted for the identical measure in 2015. In December, 2017, Republicans in Congress passed, by the skin of their teeth, a bill that lowered the taxes of most households, lowered the corporate income tax from the world’s highest (35% plus state taxes) to a more internationally competitive 21% and repealed the Obamacare individual mandate, which was a centerpiece of the Obamacare program.. In the meantime, Congress passed and President Trump signed, numerous bills rescinding Obama Administration regulations. President Trump has also pushed through confirmations of (presumably conservative) federal judges at a great rate. So there have been successes and failures by Trump and the congressional Republicans. Democrats are jeering at the failures, even as they work to block the passage of Republican legislation. The press is also happily unloading on the GOP. All of these reactions share (and promote) the mistaken notion that the Republican Party is a disciplined, unified, force, marching in step towards set goals. Any failure therefore is used to cast blame on the whole party. Yet the disagreements among Republicans in Congress should not be a surprise. The GOP has always been a coalition of factions with different, sometimes contradictory, objectives. When the party formed in the 1850s, it drew supporters from abolitionists, northern Democrats, the American Party (aka, the Know-Nothings), and Whigs. These historical roots are still discernible. Abolitionists opposed slavery on religious or moral grounds. Abraham Lincoln said that, “if slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is.” Lincoln, nevertheless, did not believe that the Constitution empowered the federal government to interfere with slavery in the states. But, because Republicans opposed slavery in federal territories, the party became the best hope of abolitionists. Southern Democrats opposed any legislation that would end slavery in the District of Columbia. Likewise, they opposed any restriction on the expansion of slavery into federal territories. Ambitious northern Democratic politicians needed southern support and vice versa to win the Presidency and to control Congress. Eventually many northern Democrats went over to the new Republican Party. The American Party, which arose in the 1840s, was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Members were commonly called “Know-Nothings.” After the American Party waned, many Know-Nothings migrated to the Republican Party, which welcomed their votes without embracing their policies. The Whig Party emerged from the ruin of the Federalists. The Whig “American System” favored high tariffs on imports and ambitious federal spending on “internal improvements.” These principles were essentially those of Alexander Hamilton. The Whig Party collapsed as the Republican Party was rising. Lincoln was a Whig before he became a Republican. Although he is remembered for the Civil War and ending slavery, Lincoln also favored big federal projects. Today’s Republican Party resembles its forebears in many respects. The religious and moral elements of the GOP are still there. Abolition of slavery has been replaced by anti-abortion, pro-life and pro-family policies. As became evident in the 2016 election, many Democrats have abandoned their party and vote Republican. The issue isn’t slavery, of course. It’s the leftward migration of the Democratic Party, which now promotes socialist policies as stridently as it once promoted slavery. There is now also an opposition by many within the Republican Party to illegal immigration, as well as to the expansion by the Obama Administration of refugees, without sufficient “vetting” to screen out potential terrorists and criminals. Donald Trump’s stance on these issues is reminiscent of, but quite distinct from, the blatantly biased Know-Nothing platform. We have serious security concerns related to immigration, as Obama knew when he signed the legislation that Trump has invoked for his temporary travel ban. The largest faction in today’s GOP may be its neo-Whigs. They don’t think of themselves that way. They prefer to be considered “moderates” or “establishment” types. But they push policies that are Whiggery in modern guise. These are the big spenders who love bringing bacon back to their states and districts. That is what the “internal improvements” in the “American System” were always really about, anyway. Now they call it “infrastructure” spending. Their support for spending now also includes various programs of the welfare state. Senators Murkowski and Capito are loud proponents. Donald Trump’s “America First” stance on international trade represents another aspect of Whiggery. President Trump has probably not read Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” but his instincts are Hamiltonian. Finally, a new faction has emerged in the modern Republican Party. In a twist of fate, it advocates the frugal, small-government policies of the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. Limited-government Democrats are extinct. But for a long time Democratic presidents opposed the “internal improvements” of the Whigs and their Republican successors on constitutional and policy grounds. Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road bill, which would have funded road improvements solely in Kentucky (an early version of California’s high-speed train-to-nowhere project to which the Obama Administration gave $5 billion). Jackson’s protégé, James K. Polk, vetoed other spending bills, while denouncing “the disreputable scramble for the public money.” Democrat Grover Cleveland even vetoed charitable spending as not a proper federal function. The Republican “Freedom Caucus” in the House has become the standard bearer for the old/new frugality, although they are still too few to change the course of the mighty river of federal spending. As you can see, the GOP’s historical roots foreshadowed the contemporary Republican Party. As in the beginning, so, today, the various policy objectives and factions pull the Party in different directions. Without a larger, more conservative majority in the Senate, it takes only a few dissidents to torpedo an initiative, when, as with Obamacare, congressional Democrats are united in opposition. Nevertheless, congressional Republicans should feel increasing urgency to accomplish the big-ticket items on their list. Whether it is fair or not, they will be judged in the 2018 elections on what they as a party have done or failed to do.