Commentary Magazine


Topic: gerrymandering

Assessing the GOP’s Shutdown Blues

If Washington conventional wisdom is right this morning, Republicans are about to start walking away from the ledge onto which they climbed with the government shutdown. Indications are that the House Republican proposals for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling will be the starting point for talks that will end the shutdown as well as ensure that the U.S. doesn’t default. It’s far from clear what the GOP will get in exchange for giving up their leverage over budget negotiations, but no one expects it to be much. If so, President Obama’s stonewalling tactics in which he dared the Republicans to shut down the government will be vindicated. And hardly a soul is talking about the fate of ObamaCare, the defunding of which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.

Why is it ending now if indeed that is what is happening? Part of the reason is a sense on the part of House Speaker John Boehner that he’s played all the cards in his hand and that brushing up against the artificial debt ceiling deadline would be a political error as well as bad for the country. But the negative fallout from the shutdown can’t be ignored as an explanation for why the GOP leadership has decided to cut its losses. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday had the worst results yet for Republicans, with the gap between those who blame them for the shutdown and those who blame the Democrats now at more than 20 percent. While President Obama and everyone else in Washington looks bad too, the Republican Party’s approval ratings are now at almost historic lows. Given the rapid dive in the GOP’s numbers in recent weeks, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the result of the shutdown that was forced on the party by Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-line conservatives over the objections of Boehner and others.

This gives those of us who have said all along that it was a mistake to force a confrontation over defunding ObamaCare, which was never going to happen, a chance for an “I told you so” or two. But any such recriminations on the part of conservatives who were derided as RINOs by Cruz’s suicide caucus and their devoted followers are being drowned out by the near-hysterical triumphalism emanating from MSNBC and other liberal bastions over the NBC/WSJ poll. But before Democrats start making plans for what they will do when they take back control of the House next year, a moment of perspective is in order. As bad as this looks for the Republicans right now, it’s not likely that anything that happens this week will affect the composition of the next Congress.

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If Washington conventional wisdom is right this morning, Republicans are about to start walking away from the ledge onto which they climbed with the government shutdown. Indications are that the House Republican proposals for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling will be the starting point for talks that will end the shutdown as well as ensure that the U.S. doesn’t default. It’s far from clear what the GOP will get in exchange for giving up their leverage over budget negotiations, but no one expects it to be much. If so, President Obama’s stonewalling tactics in which he dared the Republicans to shut down the government will be vindicated. And hardly a soul is talking about the fate of ObamaCare, the defunding of which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.

Why is it ending now if indeed that is what is happening? Part of the reason is a sense on the part of House Speaker John Boehner that he’s played all the cards in his hand and that brushing up against the artificial debt ceiling deadline would be a political error as well as bad for the country. But the negative fallout from the shutdown can’t be ignored as an explanation for why the GOP leadership has decided to cut its losses. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday had the worst results yet for Republicans, with the gap between those who blame them for the shutdown and those who blame the Democrats now at more than 20 percent. While President Obama and everyone else in Washington looks bad too, the Republican Party’s approval ratings are now at almost historic lows. Given the rapid dive in the GOP’s numbers in recent weeks, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the result of the shutdown that was forced on the party by Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-line conservatives over the objections of Boehner and others.

This gives those of us who have said all along that it was a mistake to force a confrontation over defunding ObamaCare, which was never going to happen, a chance for an “I told you so” or two. But any such recriminations on the part of conservatives who were derided as RINOs by Cruz’s suicide caucus and their devoted followers are being drowned out by the near-hysterical triumphalism emanating from MSNBC and other liberal bastions over the NBC/WSJ poll. But before Democrats start making plans for what they will do when they take back control of the House next year, a moment of perspective is in order. As bad as this looks for the Republicans right now, it’s not likely that anything that happens this week will affect the composition of the next Congress.

For a sober analysis of just how much the Democrats have gained from this episode, it’s instructive to turn to a liberal voice that has been silent for much of the last year: Nate Silver. Silver, the liberal statistician who rocketed to fame as the New York Times’s peerless blogger/prognosticator left the Grey Lady for what will presumably be further fame and fortune at ESPN (he started out as a baseball analyst before he began handicapping elections). But until his new sports site goes up, he’s resurrected his FiveThirtyEight.com blog and weighed in on the shutdown impasse yesterday with some insightful comments about recent events that should give liberals proclaiming victory some food for thought.

His half-dozen bullet points about the partisan confrontation may be debated, but I think they are largely right.

First, is his belief that the media is overhyping the impact of the shutdown. In a 24/7 news cycle, every big story seems like World War Three but, as Silver points out, other huge stories have already come and gone in the past several months like Syria, the IRS Scandal, Benghazi, or even last winter’s fiscal cliff showdown, and if you watch cable news or read the leading dailies, it’s almost as if they never happened. The notion that anything that happens this week or next, short of a real U.S. default (which is not going to happen no matter how the negotiations go) will have much of an impact on November 2014 is simply unfounded.

Just as interesting is his pointing out that the inspiration for President Obama’s decision to dare the GOP to shut down the government shouldn’t give Democrats much comfort. The 1995 government shutdown is widely believed to have badly damaged the Republicans and strengthened President Clinton. As Silver correctly notes, the GOP was not really hurt by the shutdown, as they held onto Congress the next year. There may be some who think it was a major factor in re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996 but count me among those who, like Silver, believe Bob Dole never had a prayer of being elected president, shutdown or no shutdown.

Third, Silver reminds us that the chances of the Democrats winning the midterm elections next year are very low. Given the paucity of competitive House seats (the Senate is very much in play with Democrats standing to lose seats) it would take a wave election for President Obama’s allies to succeed. But such a victory would be virtually unprecedented since it is virtually impossible for an incumbent president’s party to gain seats in the middle of his second term.

Silver also debunks the notion that this is purely the result of Republican gerrymandering since the allocation of seats is more the function of the way the two major parties have split along geographical lines as much ideological ones. For an excellent analysis about why blaming political extremism on gerrymandering is a myth read Sean Trende’s piece in RealClearPolitics.com today. As Trende notes, gerrymandering is an effect, not a cause, of partisanship. But the bottom line is that no matter how much bad press Republicans are getting today, the impact next year is likely to be minimal if not overwhelmed by subsequent events that may not be as favorable to Democrats.

Last, it is way too soon to understand what the result of this latest showdown will be and looking to ephemeral poll numbers (especially since they also have bad results for Obama and the Democrats) is a fool’s errand.

Republicans would do well to ponder how little was accomplished in the last two weeks as well as the responsibility of Cruz and others who are now in the process of walking away from the train wreck that Boehner will have to clean up. But while Obama and the liberals may be getting the better of the tussle today, there is no reason to believe any of it will help them unseat House Republicans.

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Blame Voting Rights Act for Dem Troubles

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled last month that Congress must revise the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, we’ve been getting a steady stream of jeremiads from the left claiming that the restoration of Jim Crow is just around the corner. This is pure bunk since the southern states that were covered by the preclearance map that must be changed have completely abandoned the racial policies that made the act’s adoption in 1965 absolutely necessary. African-Americans are not only not denied the right to exercise their franchise, the large number of black office-holders, especially in the state legislatures that craft the laws that govern voting procedures, testifies to the clout of minority voters.

However, the right to vote and even the vast increase in representation in legislatures and the Congress doesn’t guarantee that those who claim to speak for minority groups will get their way on every issue. Yet that is exactly what liberal writer Thomas B. Edsall seems to be arguing today in the New York Times when he claims that the “damage” done by the court will lead to a further “decline in black power” in the south. Edsall repeats the usual canards about voter ID laws being the new Jim Crow—a blatant lie that ignores not only the facts about voter integrity laws but also the fact that a large majority of African-Americans support such rules. But what’s really dishonest about this Times piece is the way he tries to distort the truth about the impact of the Voting Rights Act.

Edsall isn’t wrong when he notes that the gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts that created all those majority-minority enclaves has had a devastating impact on the Democratic Party. But the responsibility for this shouldn’t be placed on the Republicans who have benefited from the draining of likely Democratic black voters from competitive districts in order to manufacture some that are almost guaranteed to elect black politicians. If liberals don’t like the way this formula has boosted the GOP, they should acknowledge that the fault lies with liberal jurists who have consistently interpreted the Voting Rights Act in such a manner as to make this the only possible result.

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Ever since the Supreme Court ruled last month that Congress must revise the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, we’ve been getting a steady stream of jeremiads from the left claiming that the restoration of Jim Crow is just around the corner. This is pure bunk since the southern states that were covered by the preclearance map that must be changed have completely abandoned the racial policies that made the act’s adoption in 1965 absolutely necessary. African-Americans are not only not denied the right to exercise their franchise, the large number of black office-holders, especially in the state legislatures that craft the laws that govern voting procedures, testifies to the clout of minority voters.

However, the right to vote and even the vast increase in representation in legislatures and the Congress doesn’t guarantee that those who claim to speak for minority groups will get their way on every issue. Yet that is exactly what liberal writer Thomas B. Edsall seems to be arguing today in the New York Times when he claims that the “damage” done by the court will lead to a further “decline in black power” in the south. Edsall repeats the usual canards about voter ID laws being the new Jim Crow—a blatant lie that ignores not only the facts about voter integrity laws but also the fact that a large majority of African-Americans support such rules. But what’s really dishonest about this Times piece is the way he tries to distort the truth about the impact of the Voting Rights Act.

Edsall isn’t wrong when he notes that the gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts that created all those majority-minority enclaves has had a devastating impact on the Democratic Party. But the responsibility for this shouldn’t be placed on the Republicans who have benefited from the draining of likely Democratic black voters from competitive districts in order to manufacture some that are almost guaranteed to elect black politicians. If liberals don’t like the way this formula has boosted the GOP, they should acknowledge that the fault lies with liberal jurists who have consistently interpreted the Voting Rights Act in such a manner as to make this the only possible result.

Edsall laments the way the increase in power to black politicians has been accompanied by a consequent decline of southern Democrats. But rather than being honest about the way the 1965 Act led to the empowerment of blacks as individuals, Edsall prefers to heap opprobrium on a Republican Party that has been the unwitting beneficiary of a legal principle created by liberals. It was, after all, a liberal-dominated judiciary that has treated the Voting Rights Act as not merely a mandate to ensure, as it should, that the government see that every citizen’s right to vote is protected, but that district lines must be drawn in order to see to it that minorities would constitute a plurality or majority in as many places as possible. That has led to the creation, not just in the South but in various places around the United States, of districts that are geographic absurdities but which serve to guarantee that blacks and Hispanics can elect one of their one to legislative bodies. Since blacks (and increasingly Hispanics) give a disproportionate percentage of their votes to Democrats, that means Democrats seeking to compete in mixed districts are placed at a disadvantage. That’s bad news for liberals but claiming that this is the work of nefarious Republican strategists is absurd. If Republicans were to redraw district lines in order to prevent the election of minority members, that would be a clear violation of the law as presently understood.

It should be conceded that the ultimate impact of this court-mandated gerrymandering isn’t good for either party or the country. The majority-minority districts have benefited a few politicians and made their communities proud. But it has been this judicial fiat more than partisan impulses that have led to the dramatic decline in competitive House districts around the nation. Republicans would be better off if more of their members had to appeal to a broad cross section of Americans, and so would Democrats.

As for Edsall, he fails to provide a solution to this problem other than to smear the GOP. What, other than creating rules that would make it illegal for people to vote for Republicans, would he suggest to reverse the decline of Southern Democrats who find themselves disadvantaged by court-mandated districts and incapable of appealing to red state voters on the issues? Does he think Democratic attempts to gerrymander in states they control are just as horrible? Given the way the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted, the damage done by this gerrymander mandate is not something any legislature can remedy by constitutional means.

We would all be better off if the parties were not racially polarized, but the left’s determination to demonize Republicans and to wave the bloody shirt of Jim Crow in a feeble attempt to further divide the nation is no answer. 

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Cries of Racism Cloud Real Issues in Court

Liberals are jumping all over Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment yesterday during an oral hearing in which he asked whether continuing the special enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in some states was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Many, including his court colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor, seemed to interpret it as questioning whether the right to vote is itself a “racial entitlement.” For his pains, Scalia was branded a racist. What is left of the aging remnants of the once-vital civil rights movement are hoping that outrage about that remark can galvanize public pressure not just for the continuation of the Voting Rights Act as it currently stands, but against both voter integrity laws and the system of racial majority districts.

The problem with the critique of Scalia is pretty much the same as that with the defense of the legal status quo. What is at stake in this debate and the legal case in question–Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder–is not the right to vote, which Scalia supports as much as any liberal. There is no evidence that anyone in Shelby County is trying to reinstate Jim Crow laws or prevent African Americans or other minorities from exercising their constitutionally protected right to cast a ballot. Nor is there any evidence that this is true anywhere else in the states and counties that remain under direct federal supervision as a result of the 1965 law. The entitlement in question is rather the ability of the Justice Department to act as a national elections commission in certain areas that were once strongholds of racial hatred, even though the country has changed markedly in the last half century. Instead of promoting the false charge that Scalia is a segregationist, the focus should be on who benefits from the continuation of Section Five of the Act. The answer is: a class of political elites that benefit from the creation of racial majority districts.

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Liberals are jumping all over Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment yesterday during an oral hearing in which he asked whether continuing the special enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in some states was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Many, including his court colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor, seemed to interpret it as questioning whether the right to vote is itself a “racial entitlement.” For his pains, Scalia was branded a racist. What is left of the aging remnants of the once-vital civil rights movement are hoping that outrage about that remark can galvanize public pressure not just for the continuation of the Voting Rights Act as it currently stands, but against both voter integrity laws and the system of racial majority districts.

The problem with the critique of Scalia is pretty much the same as that with the defense of the legal status quo. What is at stake in this debate and the legal case in question–Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder–is not the right to vote, which Scalia supports as much as any liberal. There is no evidence that anyone in Shelby County is trying to reinstate Jim Crow laws or prevent African Americans or other minorities from exercising their constitutionally protected right to cast a ballot. Nor is there any evidence that this is true anywhere else in the states and counties that remain under direct federal supervision as a result of the 1965 law. The entitlement in question is rather the ability of the Justice Department to act as a national elections commission in certain areas that were once strongholds of racial hatred, even though the country has changed markedly in the last half century. Instead of promoting the false charge that Scalia is a segregationist, the focus should be on who benefits from the continuation of Section Five of the Act. The answer is: a class of political elites that benefit from the creation of racial majority districts.

As both the plaintiffs and some of the justices pointed out yesterday, the problem that that provision of the law was designed to address has been solved. Voter turnout of blacks is actually higher in the nine states covered by the Act than in the rest of the country. The continuation of Section Five–in which certain areas must prove they are not discriminating against minorities rather than forcing the government to prove that they are–does, however, hamper the ability of legislatures to redraw districts or to pass voter integrity laws that liberals falsely allege are directed against minorities.

It must be understood that once the detritus of segregation and other laws intended to prevent blacks from voting were swept away, the main point of the law has been to create a system that enshrined racial gerrymandering as the norm. Since it was assumed that whites would never vote for an African American, the courts mandated that congressional and legislative districts be drawn so as to ensure that blacks and in some cases Hispanics would be able to elect one of their own.

This led to a vast expansion of the number of blacks in Congress and in state legislatures, but ironically also hurt the party that most of them supported. The districts created by this racial gerrymander were often bizarrely drawn and had little to do with geography or history. But the main point is that they drained black Democratic voters from other districts that ensured the engineering of a few safe Democratic seats. Yet they also made the remaining districts much whiter and, ironically, far more likely to be Republican.

That was good for the few black politicians who were in possession of these safe Democratic and racially homogeneous seats, and for the Republican Party that cleaned up everywhere else. Whether that is actually good for the country or for African American voters, who have little influence on the composition of Congress and whose representatives are the products of petty one-party autocracies, is another matter entirely.

Just as crucial to understanding the impact of this case is the way the Civil Rights Act has become a weapon to use against voter integrity laws. What is left of the civil rights movement has embraced the cause of stopping voter ID laws as a way of reviving their influence. Minorities are no less capable of getting the same photo ID that is needed to conduct just about any transaction in the modern commercial world or to interact with government than anyone else. But the left attempts to argue that opposition to them is indistinguishable from that of racial justice. This is absurd, and it is opposed by what polls have consistently showed to be the vast majority of Americans—including minorities—who think laws that seek to prevent electoral cheating are inherently reasonable.

The current interpretation of the Voting Rights Act gives Attorney General Eric Holder the right to oppose these laws and to brand them as racist. As the president’s mention of the issue in his State of the Union showed, this is an attempt to play the racial card for partisan purposes. It also gives aging rights groups who have outlived their usefulness a new lease on life. But all this also undermines any notion that what is at stake in the Shelby case is anything remotely connected to the original intent of the 1965 law.

The South has transcended its tragic past and is no more nor less racist than any other part of the country. But given the inability of so many in Congress on both sides of the aisle to rise above their own self-interest on this issue, the court is the only venue that can talk sense and end a practice that now does more mischief than good. Protecting the right to vote is a sacred cause that deserves the support of all Americans. But the preservation of this outmoded system, or wrongly branding Scalia a racist, has nothing to with that.

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