Ronald Reagan also changed the Republican party by proclaiming that government was the enemy. Following Reagan, Republicans did not promise to govern more efficiently or more wisely than Democrats. Instead they denounced government as the problem and promised to oppose government. When the GOP was primarily a party of big business, Republicans may have supported measures to improve capital markets or certain sorts of infrastructure spending that could help businesses. At one time, they might have been concerned about climate change because of the harm it could do to the economy. But no longer. Government is the enemy except, perhaps, for defense spending and building a border wall. It is bad or evil if it accomplishes anything else. And what better way to lessen government than by reducing taxes, especially on those who support me, the rich and the corporations. If you proclaim government is the enemy, then creating a dysfunctional Congress is a godsend.

It followed, then, if lack of government and dysfunctionality are desirble, Republicans increasingly used cloture. Cloture is the procedure that requires sixty votes for a Senate action. It was once the method of ending a filibuster. Even though the Senate no longer has those throat-draining, sleep-depriving filibusters of yore, the threat of a filibuster can still require cloture, or a three-fifths vote, for the Senate to move on. In 1970, there were fifteen cloture motions. In the 1980s, for a two-year Congress, the Senate never had more than eighty cloture motions, but when the Democrats gained the Senate majority after the 2006 elections, the Republicans seeking to block the majority filed 139 and 137 cloture motions in the 2007-08 and 2009-10 Congresses. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, had adopted the threat of a filibuster as a basic tactic.

By preventing the majority from acting, cloture conforms to the idea that government is the enemy, but it also fits the new conservatism in another way. Traditional conservatives pledged to support traditional values and practices. The new conservative Senate Republicans led by McConnell changed that. Traditionally, cloture was rare. Under McConnell, those Senatorial values were abandoned to the greater partisan good of denying Democrats the ability to act. Tradition be damned.

McConnell’s famous statement that his priority was to make sure that Barack Obama was not reelected elevates partisanship over country.  McConnell was not interested in whether an Obama proposal was good for the country, only in denying Obama victories that might get that president reelected.  Something similar was at work with the Dodd-Frank act, Kaiser indicates. Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who was vulnerable to electoral defeat the following November, decided not to seek reelection. Kaiser concludes that Dodd’s decision greatly aided passage of the act that sought to prevent future 2008-like financial crises. McConnell did not do everything within his power to defeat the act. However, Kaiser maintains that if Dodd had sought to return to the Senate, McConnell would have spared no effort to defeat the bill. He would have wanted to deny Dodd a victory that Dodd could have touted in his reelection campaign. Partisanship before the good of the country.

The Dodd-Frank history also shows that partisanship came before honest debate. Republicans opposing the bill simply made up stuff about what was in the proposed legislation. It didn’t matter if what they said was true as long as it sounded like it was true to partisans. Distorting the truth kills serious discussion, for, Kaiser points out, “Without an agreed set of facts, meaningful debate is impossible.” The make-stuff-up crowd has only increased since then. It hardly matters if it is demonstrated a conservative’s facts are fantasy. (We are not just talking about the president here. The fact-checking sites have found that conservatives make “misstatements” more frequently than non-conservatives.) The fantastical just keeps coming. What Christopher Dodd found out a decade ago has even wider application today. He tried to shame Mitch McConnell about his indifference to the truth. Kaiser wryly remarks that shaming McConnell was “not an easy task.”

(continued March 27)

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