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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/10/the-scapegoat-in-washington-is-process-not-people/

Phil's column

Phil Power is founder and chairman
of the Center for Michigan.

The scapegoat in Washington is process, not people

I don’t know just how close our country came to economic disaster last week, but I do know most Americans are sick and tired of the entire mess in Washington. Up to now, I never thought the country was close to ungovernable, but I’m beginning to wonder.

It’s no secret we came near to chaos — if not economic ruin –last week, in large part because a few Tea Party-backed Washington politicians dreamed up the idea of holding our economy hostage to their hatred of the Affordable Care Act.

They did that, even though most people — including many Republicans — knew that this strategy could never work.

And in the end, it didn’t. Obamacare enrollment, despite inexcusable software flaws, is still going forward. The government shutdown cost at least an estimated $24 billion in taxpayer money.

Pragmatic Republicans and many in the business community are now assessing whether Tea Party populism is really the way of the future. The obvious question is going to be whether the voters are likely to penalize those deemed responsible for this mess.

My guess is not, mainly because the 40-60 or so incumbent right wingers who are largely responsible represent congressional districts that are gerrymandered so drawn so heavily Republican that they’re in no danger of ordinary citizen backlash.

Gerrymandered districts — whether Republican or Democratic –work that way. If a district is drawn to overwhelmingly favor one party, for example, the only election that counts is the primary.

And primary elections traditionally draw low turnouts, mainly from fierce partisan members of the party’s base.

This usually results in the most right-wing candidate getting nominated for certain victory in November’s general election.

Moreover, national hard-right groups, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, have been eager to dump millions into any primary in which their favorites might be threatened by more moderate candidates.

So as a practical matter, gerrymandered districts immunize incumbents –no matter how radical — from push-back by ordinary citizen voters because August primaries are so narrowly ideological and November general elections are so cut and dried.

Worse, they are an incentive to push candidates and officeholders to extremes.

We can discuss endlessly the details of whether Tea Party Republicans or Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) or President Obama or Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are more responsible. But it’s inescapable that the practice of gerrymandering and its enabling cousin, the partisan primary, lie at the heart of the systemic breakdown of our political system.

Incidentally, this isn’t entirely a Washington-based matter. Voter reaction will be tested next year in two congressional districts right here in Michigan:

  • The incumbent congressman from West Michigan’s Third Congressional District (gerrymandered bulletproof Republican) is 33-year-old Justin Amash, a firebrand hard-right stomper.

Amash will face opposition in next year’s August primary from Brian Ellis, a businessman and East Grand Rapids school board member, who says Amash has “turned his back on conservative principles.” My sources in Grand Rapids say the powerful local business community there is disturbed at the growing tendency of the Tea Party faction of the GOP to ignore economic realities. They may well put up lots of money in an effort to defeat Amash.

  • Then there is the 11th District, which includes a bunch of Wayne and Oakland County suburban Detroit communities.

This district was designed to reliably return Republicans to Congress. The present incumbent, reindeer farmer Kerry Bentivolio (R-Milford) is seen as spacey, but he’s also hard right. He’ll face powerful opposition from David Trott, a well-heeled mortgage foreclosure attorney from Birmingham, who has already raised nearly $700,000, much of it from the business community.

In the aftermath of last week’s drama, it’s plain the Republican Party is deeply divided between Tea Party radicals and pragmatists, including many in the business community. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. But the structural issue lurking at the heart of America’s dysfunctional political crisis is the practice of gerrymandering itself. I’ll be writing about this in next week’s column.

Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

17 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Rich

    You speak as though gerrymandering was something bd and thought up by the Republicans. How about the districts that by law must be minority. How about Gary Peters district that looks like a twisted piece of spaghetti.

    If you wanted real reform in government, you would advocate for open primaries. Today, the candidate will most likely come from the political fringe of either party. With an open primary, you would have a good chance of getting a moderate candidate and a fringe candidate running against each other. You would still have primarily Republican and Democratic districts which are dependent on where people of a particular party choose to live, but you would have the chance of someone being elected who was more centrist, and less likely to vote the fringe party line. Sure, you wouldn’t have Republicans running in Detroit, and you probably wouldn’t have Democrats on the ballot in western Michigan, but you would have a good chance of keeping the extreme liberals and the far right tea party members from being elected. And that should lead to government that is more interested in collaboration rather than confrontation.

    1. D Whyte

      Uhhh, Michigan does have a primary system where anyone can vote in the primary – they just have to go to the trouble. You and anyone else can go to the polls at primary time and request either republican or a democratic ballot and vote for the candidate(s) of your choice. You are not required to be a member of the party to do this.

    2. Charles Richards

      This is very good, but needs one modification to meet the objection raised by D Whyte. Louisiana, California and Washington states have primaries where Democrats and Republicans all run in the same primary contest. The top two vote getters run in the general election even if they are both Republicans or Democrats. That strengthens the moderates, the independents. If one of the top vote getters is an extremist from either party, the more moderate candidate can appeal to the broad center and the extreme wing of the other party. The very likely result will be the election of a more moderate, centrist candidate who better represents the electorate.

      1. Phil Power

        Just wait for my column next Tuesday!

    3. Phil Power

      Just wait for my column next Tuesday!

    4. John Q. Public

      Hey Rich:

      What party was in charge when Gary Peters’ district was drawn? While he IS a Democrat, and he does benefit from the lines, it was the price the Repubs paid to guarantee themselves three seats for the next decade.

    5. Rebecca

      The Republicans drew Gary Peters crazy District to combine his and Hansen CLark’s. So what are you talking about, if you know?

  2. Barry Visel

    So,we should only elect moderate R’s and D’s who have proven they can’t control spending, continue to grow our debt, and have developed rules and ‘systems’ (including gerrymandering) which over time have led to dictatorial rulers like Harry Reid. Obama commissioned “Simpson-Bowles” and did nothing with it. And the Tea Party gets called out for trying to change our broken system? I don’t get it!

  3. John

    Phil, I am sure you are correct that gerrymandering is one cause of political dysfunction in Washington. But, a more influential cause is media bias (at both ends of the political spectrum). So, I have to protest your repeated assertion in this article that gerrymandering has created only one side to blame, the Tea Party Republicans. When you created this organization, it was your stated mission that the site would not take political positions, but make a concerted effort to present the facts with as little political bias as possible. I believe you took this position because you correctly perceived that the media has abandoned their crucial role in our democracy of bringing as much of the truth to light with as little bias as possible, so the electorate can make informed decisions. When this website first started, I felt that is exactly what you and your team were doing. But, increasingly, I see political bias injected into your articles and opinion pieces.
    As a rational observer, I find it hard to blame only the Tea Party for this impasse. The PPACA was drawn up and passed in a completely partisan way. There was zero input from the Republicans or the public for that matter. Then, it was passed using unprecedented legislative maneuvering. Not a single legislator even read the bill they were voting on. Not a single Republican voted for the bill. Our country has never enacted a bill with such wide ranging effect without bipartisan support, compromise and debate. Clearly, the Tea Party Republicans campaigned on a platform that they would try to repeal the PPACA. The electorate didn’t like the way the PPACA was enacted and didn’t completely like the bill itself. Therefore, they elected Tea Party Republicans to try to repeal or change the law, which they have tried to do. First, the Republicans tried a complete defunding, which is extreme. Then they compromised to a position of delaying the individual mandate for one year, and finally just asking that federal employees be subject to the same subsidy rules as the general public. This is hardly an extreme position. On the other side of the isle, President Obama announced that he would not negotiate any issue under the threat of government shutdown and debt default. On the surface this may play well, but the reality is President Obama said he must have 100% of what he wanted, with no compromise and eliminate the Republican’s only negotiating leverage before he would consider negotiating any compromise. This sounds to me like he does not intend to compromise now that he has gotten his way. I would say that is an extreme position as well.
    When the media gives up any effort to provide unbiased facts to the public, our democracy (republic really) is seriously imperiled. I had hoped and still have hope this website can bring unbiased facts to the debate. But, this opinion and many recent articles give me great cause to worry the Center for Michigan is going down the same disastrous path as the media in general. Please prove me wrong.

    1. Mike R

      John, the problem with your analysis is that it assumes all sides have equally meritorious positions. The President’s refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling or funding the government and the Tea Party’s demands to repeal or defund a law are not morally, legally, or historically equivalent. Never before (except in 1995) has a President or one party been in a position of being asked to de-fund or repeal a law or make some similar dramatic concession during negotiations over raising the debt ceiling or enacting a Continuing Resolution. Such negotiations historically never involved real threats of shutdown or default and did not seek dramatic changes in any law, policy, or program. All sides recognized that the operation of the government and the ability to pay national obligations were not to be used as bargaining chips, because to do so would be fiscally irresponsible, not conducive to the continued ability of the Parties to work together, and just plain wrong. The Tea Partiers have decided that their ends justify such means, but there is no equivalent faction on the other side that is demanding, for example, “Raise the Social Security cost of living or we’ll shut down the government!”, nor has there ever been. To say that the President or the Democrats had an obligation to negotiate in the face of such demands is to ignore history and abandon the ability to recognize right from wrong.

      Mr. Power and Bridge never said they would be politically neutral; they intended to be, and I submit are doing a fine job of, being non-partisan and moderate. By calling out those on the extremes and naming names, they are fullfilling their commitment and shining a much-needed spotlight on those whose irresponsiblity and narrow self-interests are impediments to real progress in Michigan.

      1. John

        Mke R. If the Republicans had not offered any compromise modifications to the PPACA law prior to this recent showdown and had simply demanded full defunding of PPACA or the threat of closing down the government, I would agree with your assertion that the Democrats have a far more meritorious position. But prior to this showdown, the Republicans had offered numerous potential fixes to the PPACA which the Democrats have refused to negotiate on. Given the many very serious flaws in the PPACA law which have been expressed by many insurance and health care experts, it would seem the Democrats have the less meritorious position by refusing to negotiate on any point. Especially given the law was formulated behind closed doors and voted in with exclusively one party vote. How often does that result in moderation? Now, most people are not aware of the Republican’s offers of compromise or the expert’s criticisms of the law because of what I believe is very biased reporting by the media. I hate to see Bridge continue these biases. Level headed, reasoned reporting that looks at all sides of the story is required for a democracy to remain free.

        Remember democratic votes enacted Jim Crow laws. Obviously, the PPACA has nothing to do with Jim Crow laws, but my point is that without a free unbiased press, laws can be enacted in a democracy that amount to tyranny. One of the people’s strongest defenses against this is a free unbiased press.

        1. Mike R

          John, I don’t disagree with your recount of the history of the PPACA, or the Democrats’ refusal to negotiate on any of the changes offered by Republicans, or the fact that many bad laws have been enacted by the ordinary process of government. My point is that there’s a very large difference between negotiating using appropriate points of leverage and at appropriate times, and “negotiating” by holding a gun to the collective heads of the whole nation and threatening to take down the entire American, perhaps International, financial system in order to block a law that has otherwise survived every legally held vote and court challenge. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the PPACA (and it does have many demerits), it was simply politically, fiscally, ethically, and morally wrong for Republicans to take that course. In a civilized and orderly political process there must be some actions, even in politics, that are wrong whether or not the press has accurately or fairly reported the entire history leading up to them. There may be shame on the press if they didn’t fairly report, and shame on the Democrats if they should have considered amendments but didn’t, but the biggest shame is on those who could not accept that their only remaining honorable recourse was to the ballot box. And I think Bridge has accurately and appropriately called them out for it.

  4. Cheryl

    To John….AMEN! my thoughts exactly….this website has become more and more biased towards the left.

  5. Charles Richards

    While they have merit, Mr. Power’s comments are somewhat off the mark. There are entire states and regions that are deep red or deep blue. That is not a matter of gerrymandered congressional districts. Rather, it is a matter of our having sorted ourselves out into two groups with values that are diametrically opposed. And they don’t have a political language in common that they could use to engage in rational discussion. Instead, they talk past one another. Something illustrated by, I believe, Arnold King, in his book “The Three Languages of Politics.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt illuminates the problem even more comprehensively in his excellent book “The Righteous Mind.” He sets for the five or six dimensions of values that comprise people’s makeup. Some people put a lot of emphasis on “harm-reduction” and “equality” while others value “patriotism,” “sacredness,” and “hierarchy.” That’s generally not an insuperable problem unless people in one or both groups overemphasize certain values to the exclusion of all the others. Particularly, if they lack the wisdom and perspective to grant the legitimacy of the other’s values.

    It is just not the case that it is “inescapable that the practice of gerrymandering and its enabling cousin, the partisan primary, lie at the heart of the systemic breakdown of our political system” As I pointed out in my reply to Rich, primary reform would be a valuable thing to do, but it I not the complete answer.

  6. Richard

    Minimizing the impact of gerrymandering would reduce the influence of both the crazies on the right and the loonies on the left. The substantial majority of us in the center, be it center-left or center-right, are being ignored in Lansing and DC. When it comes time to vote, we have little real impact as very few districts are now competitive. Whether it’s by a Commission like Iowa, or open primary like California (where the top two vote-getters in the primary advance regardless of party affiliation), something needs to be done to fix this.

  7. John Q. Public

    Phil:

    If people are so fed up with the system, why do you suppose they choose every two years to keep it intact? Face it: the people don’t care as long as they can golf, watch football and go out to eat a couple of times a week.

  8. Ellen

    To John, I totally agree with your objective analysis, I also am concerned that The Center for Michigan is showing their bias. I want the Center to point out the truth in the political system; you, John, have capably shown the facts (truth) that the media and The Center should have reported. Thank you for your concise statements of facts.

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