When Republicans Were Problem-Solvers

WASHINGTON — We interrupt this highly partisan and ideological moment with some contrarian news: President Obama is not the only politician who thinks that expanding access to pre-Kindergarten is a good investment.

In Alabama, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley urged a 60 percent increase in preschool funding in his state, with the goal of having a universal preschool system in place within 10 years. “I truly believe by allowing greater access to a voluntary pre-K education,” Bentley declared earlier this month in his State of the State message, “we will change the lives of children in Alabama.” The state Bentley leads is not a notoriously liberal place.

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder just proposed a large increase in preschool funding — from $109 million this fiscal year to $174 million in 2014 and $239 million in 2015.

Nobody should pretend that the president has found in pre-K education the key that will unlock bipartisanship. Right out of the box, Andrew J. Coulson of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom told The New York Times that Obama’s plan “just doesn’t make any sense” while Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, sounded a skeptical note in saying the president “needs to explain how this program will be different.”

But by today’s partisan standards, Kline’s comment was remarkably restrained. So it’s worth pausing to wonder if we might slowly be opening an era when Republicans will be feeling a little less pressure to mouth tea party attacks on government and more incentive to say that they, too, want to solve problems that concern the vast majority of Americans.

In pushing universal pre-K, Obama made a shrewd choice in both political and policy terms. There are enough studies to show that early childhood education programs make a real difference, which is why Republicans such as Snyder and Bentley embrace them. And Obama is structuring his initiative to work with the states to build on what many of them are already doing, or would like to do.

This beachhead of cooperation might also serve as a reminder to Republicans that the idea of politics as all-ideology, all-the-time is a relatively recent invention. Education reform was a thoroughly bipartisan cause in the 1980s. Governors such as Democrats Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Richard Riley in South Carolina, and Republican Lamar Alexander in Tennessee teamed up to push for higher standards. Alexander, who is now in the Senate, was willing to raise taxes to finance his education initiatives.

There is also the tale of Tommy Thompson, who as governor of Wisconsin in the 1990s tried to broaden health insurance coverage with his “BadgerCare” program. Early in the debate over Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Thompson called it “another important step” toward achieving reform.

Thompson had to eat those words when he sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate last year in the face of tea party opposition. The rebuke of Thompson from Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, was representative. “The world has changed since he was elected to office,” said Chocola, who had endorsed one of Thompson’s primary opponents. “Now we’re talking about how much less we’ll spend rather than how much more we’ll spend.” That was right-wing ideology speaking.

Thompson survived the primary but was then defeated by Democrat Tammy Baldwin. While liberals cheered Baldwin’s victory, there was something poignant in Thompson’s losing in part because he traded in his problem-solving past for a new anti-government disposition that didn’t really fit him.

You sense that Republicans such as Thompson and Alexander (there are many others) are exasperated with the view that the only point of seeking public office is to shrink government. But it will take considerable courage for such Republicans to move their party back to a time when conservatives and progressives did not have to disagree on everything — when causes such as helping 4-year-olds to learn and thrive could encourage politicians to lay down their arms at least momentarily.

There are other issues that ought to be like this: training and education programs to restore mobility and ease inequalities; immigration reform; and at least parts of Obama’s agenda to curb gun violence. But progress will require conservatives to give up certain recent habits and remember when they, too, believed that government could successfully remedy some of the nation’s ills.


E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected](c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

Author: E.J. DIONNE, JR., WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST

3 Comments

  1. Come on, he could have thrown in motherhood and apple pie as well, causing Dionne to fall over crying tears of joy and Boehner to scowl furiously.

  2. I believe with either side, it comes down to who can you make the angriest. It seems only emotionally-charged (volatile?) people vote in primaries. We’ve lost a sense of civic duty when voting was closer to 75%. Now, due to apathy or disillusion, voting has fallen off during primary and general elections with the former begetting the latter. We don’t feel the call, urgency or need to vote in a primary, so we get candidates with more extreme positions than the general population. They turn off many general voters causing the percentage of voters to go down.

    Is it equally bad on both sides? No, not if you believe the trend lines of liberal-conservative dimensions as seen on voteview.com (http://voteview.com/images/polar_house_means.png). Since, 1979, Republicans have trended way to the right while Democrats haven’t moved much at all. Certainly it’s better in the Senate than in the House for obvious reasons. Even moderate Republicans in the House have trended much more conservative than moderate Democrats have trended liberal. The Senate, again, is a little better but it seems the shifting trend of the moderates in both parties could be due to the “Dixiecrats” switching parties in the late 60′s/early 70s. Say what you will about Democrats, but if these trends are to be believed then it means they’ve kept the party ideologues in check a lot better than the Republicans have.

    More than that, it also means that moderate or middle-of-the-road policy positions have had to shift as well. If you look at many of the policy positions of the three major Republican presidents before Clinton: Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan; many of their landmark legislations would now fall to the left of the today’s arbitrary mid-line between Conservative and Liberal political spectrum. Much like weight gain or aging, we don’t notice the weekly changes this shift has caused on our society. However, I will grant that on a few social positions leftward lean has occurred, most notably on equal rights for women and gays. By and large, though, the US has shifted rightward on most economic policies due to the sharp right shift in Republican policies making it falsely appear that Democratic policy proposals become more “radical” with each passing year.

    Over the past decade as the number of registered Republicans has fallen, that consequence has let the party ideologues and rabid righties gain more power in who they choose to represent them in the general elections. When your party doesn’t have anyone of a William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan stature to stand up to these people, you get candidates who will appeal to those people’s basest instincts thereby narrowing the tent. I’ve seen it within my own homestate of Texas over the past 30 years. Gone are the days of Lloyd Bentsen, Jim Hightower, Sam Rayburn, Bill Clements, both Bushes when father and son were a Representative and Governor, respectively. Why do you think “W” was able to garner such a large Latino vote percentage in both presidential elections when other Republicans can’t even crack 30% of that voting block? Even Hutchison started out pretty moderate but had to become more conservative over the last 10 years prompting her exit from politics. Now, we’re stuck with Cruz, Gohmert, Cornyn, Jackson-Lee running our state’s clown rodeo in DC and Perry running our state boasting of creating so many new jobs (almost all of them for minimum wage). I had some hope for the Texas Republicans until Dewhurst lost to Cruz in the primary and they inserted a clause into the party platform condemning “critical thinking” being taught in public schools. Hopefully, the Castro boys can have better luck with the Democrats.

    Maybe somewhere in the RNC this was at one time the political strategy, to let the most right-leaning of their party take them further right thereby dragging the country more politically right. However, along the way this political “Frankenstein” seems to have gotten out of their control and now I’m not sure how they’ll be able to get it back under control in time for the primaries when many Republicans up for re-election are being threatened from their right political flank by candidates that represent an even smaller percentage of the general American electorate will reside compared to any previous election. They can only gerrymander so much in the House and Senators have no such shelter.

    I await the day when the political rubberband snaps Republicans back to towards the ideological center so that they will be able to put “country before party” and work with many of the Democrats on the other side. Hopefully, Democrats will see this as a new opportunity for compromise rather than a mandate of purely Democratic ideas.

  3. One of the reasons I approve of President Obama’s tendency to move more towards the center, is precisely because it will enable long term goals to be achieved much more easily. I also see Republicans (at least some of them) finally waking up to the realization that extreme Tea Party politics are not going to win a great deal of votes, that is, once the public sees the actual results of their endless obstructionism. In 2010 the message about big bad democrats wanting only to tax and spend, was actually so accepted by the public, that, although Obama’s ACA bill was only something he had promised to deliver while campaigning—greater availability to health care for all Americans—the tea party was ruthlessly successful at scaring the public with the bogey man of our ever increasing debt.

    While many economists maintain that large cuts should come only after restoring the economy to a more stable condition—using stimulus funding to create jobs—this is just not going to happen soon after all the effective propaganda the GOP managed to dish out about over spending.

    If some Republicans are actually beginning to move more towards the center and if Democrats are able to avoid the idea that they must lay out a “mandate of purely Democratic ideas,” as brcarthey puts it, perhaps we can actually recapture the days when both parties recognized the value of reaching across the aisle—thereby enabling the government to operate as it should—by using reasonable compromises.

    To a liberal like me, the fact that Governor Jindal actually dared to lay it on the line by imploring colleges with the need to “quit being the stupid party,”(or words to that effect) I can see the possibility of Tea Party politics finally going out like any silly and shallow fad–hopefully as soon as possible!

    During the Republican Primaries of the last election cycle, most reasonable people could see through, the implication that Republican virtue inherently involved an absolute refusal to compromise on ideological imperatives. Consequently I think comedian Robin Williams said it well when describing the Republican primaries field of candidates as looking like they all fell out of a clown car.

    I only hope that we are seeing a restoration of Congressmen who respond to sane proposals by finally agreeing to compromise. When the major of Republican candidates fought for the nomination, it seemed to me that whenever any of them actually said anything half-way sane, they were banished from the graces of their party; Gingrich stated that he was not in favor of social engineering from either the left or the right—a sane and moderate statement that only lost him the nomination.

    I cannot wait for the day when our Tea Party idiots become a thing of the past, along with television schedules filled out by numerous “reality” shows. What we need is some sensible reality in Congress and in our personal and cultural lives! We won’t be able to function without it!

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