What The Rand Paul Presidency Would Look Like
Recently, Chris Matthews predicted that Rand Paul will be the Republican nominee in 2016. Given this increases the odds Paul won’t be the Republican candidate (Matthews predicted Giuliani would win the nomination in 2008, and Michelle Bachman would secure it in 2012), I nonetheless want to consider such a scenario, in part because it is plausible, (despite Matthews’ forecasting jinx), but mainly to speculate on the consequences of the Kentucky Tea-Party favorite winning the general election.
First of all, let’s consider the likely circumstances, as far as we can this far out. Although the Republicans have a reasonably good shot at re-taking the Senate in November, the chances are at least as high that the Democrats will reclaim it in 2016. The rationale is this: The Democrats who survived 2010 can survive anything. 2010 was a rout, so there just aren’t very many competitive Democratic-held seats up in 2016. Absent retirements, there are only one or two Democratic-held seats rated as “toss-up” in the initial 2016 senate ratings. Conversely, the GOP will have to defend vulnerable seats in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or potentially New Hampshire or Ohio.
This hypothetical, however, does not even necessitate the Democrats re-gaining the majority. It envisages a substantial rout, in which the Democrats are reduced to a Liberal rump of about forty-five Senators. Imagine the following scenario: On the West Front of the Capitol, on a bitterly cold January afternoon, President elect Rand Paul stands with an enthusiastic inauguration-day crowd watching on. Behind him are distinguished guests, including his out-going predecessor, President Obama, whose already controversial legacy has been diminished by the electoral defeat of his intended successor, Hillary Clinton.
President-elect Paul has slipped off the black gloves he had been wearing throughout the chilly morning in preparation to place his right hand on the bible now held forth by Chief Justice John Roberts, who towers over the five-foot-eight new President. Adjacent to Paul’s beaming wife stands Vice-President elect Mike Lee, the weak, wintry sunlight gleaming off his high forehead as he watches on, his expression one of resolution, vindication and…
You get the idea. Anyway, once Paul has officially assumed office, the Libertarian reformer launches into a hectic legislative agenda.
The forty-five Democrat Senators, over the course of several caucus meetings called by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have meanwhile devised a strategy. It is one of legitimate equivalency – acting essentially equal to the precedents set by the previous Republican minority.
Firstly, they shall have the same disciplined unity of the Republican minority of forty Senators in 2009, who brazenly declared an all-out effort to dig-in, block the incoming Administration’s agenda whenever possible, and make President Obama ‘a one-term President’.
The legitimate equivalency stems from the fact the new Republican administration would have absolutely no moral, let alone procedural recourse to criticize or complain that Washington was being maintained in gridlock by less than half of the members of one branch of Congress in one branch of government. They would have to operate within the context of the ‘new normal’ they themselves had established.
Just as importantly, they have not forgotten that Paul was one of a clutch of Republicans most synonymous with those years of aggravating intransigence; and after a protracted and acrimonious campaign, no one has a particularly open mind. Fresh in the memories of the Democrat minority are President Paul’s ratings from the National Journal as one of the most conservative senators based on votes cast and his activities on the floor. They recall his talking filibuster to delay voting on the nomination of John Brennan as the Director of the CIA, followed shortly after by a threat of another filibuster, this one opposing any legislative proposals to expand federal gun control measures.
Also fresh in the memories of the Democratic minority are Paul’s longtime opposition to the bank and auto industry bailouts. With Fannie Mae having paid back 110% of what it borrowed, the car industry 83%, A.I.G 115%, and the bank industry 103%, the Democrats feel vindicated about the social-democratic approach Paul derided, and already have their backs up. After eight years of pent-up frustration, having their recent president’s legislative agenda met with unprecedented levels of intransigence, filibustering and brinkmanship, several times placing the nation on the cusp of default and once shutting down the Federal government for more than two weeks, the Democratic minority, despite bland platitudes in public about turning over a new page, in fact feel they have no obligation whatsoever to acquiesce to the new administration’s agenda. On prominent votes, there are occasional aisle-crossings, from red-state Democrat senators such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, but on the whole the caucus holds firm. The constituencies of this core of senators are Liberal enough to buffer them from the political pressure of variables such as a strengthening economy or high presidential approval ratings.
President Paul submits a plan that, among other things, attempts to lower the top nominal tax rate to 25%. The Democratic senate minority enters into a month or two of theatrical pretence, ostensibly considering the legislation, but actually dragging their heels in order to foment and build up strident and coordinated opposition from the Left-wing base. They then say no, and promptly filibuster the legislation. Several months later, they grudgingly allow a minor reduction in the top rates, only just enough for the frustrated and disillusioned Republicans to vote, out of a need to at least get something out of a long and stressful process. Shortly after, Paul proposes a large-scale program of deregulation, and of allowing the free market to regulate interest rates. The Democrats say no and filibuster it.
Paul proposes returning control of education to local communities and parents and thus eliminating the federal Department of Education. The idea dies at the committee stage when it is apparent there won’t be enough support to surmount a filibuster. And on it goes. Again, given the precedents established by the Republicans during the Obama Administration, what possible recourse would the Paul administration have to protest they were being treated unfairly?
The strange thing is, all of this ought to be blindingly obvious; but it is doubtful this hypothetical will ever penetrate the collective consciousness of the Right.
The reason for this collective blind spot? Good old fashioned hubris. Despite their two Presidential victories, Liberals are inveterate fretters, perpetually second-guessing themselves in a ruggedly individualistic culture still in the dimming afterglow of the Reagan Revolution, and willing to settle for modest gains rather than end up empty-handed. On the other side, despite their last President’s second term (and some would argue much of his first) being abjectly awful, and despite their subsequent two election losses, and despite that meaning only two presidential victories out of the last six, the right retains a stubbornly hubristic, bone-deep belief in the fundamental rightness of Conservatism, morally and fiscally. Allied to this is their understanding that the nation overall is fundamentally Conservative, citing the fact Conservatives outnumber Liberals as a percentage of the population. (It’s just that the public is prone to going wayward, due to the Liberal media, the sedation of socialist handouts and the temptation to become takers).
They feel, innately, that the magnitude of a right-wing electoral ‘reset’ will be enough to overwhelm opposition in Washington to their agenda. Chastened Democrats will feel a compulsion to submit to the bulk of that agenda because of the pressure bearing down on them not only from a change of government, but a change of culture – turbo-charged capitalism with a Libertarian attitude. They feel, also, that there is a difference in the type of leverage they can exert. Essentially, Americans prefer to have taxes lowered than raised, and public opinion will therefore be easier to muster, and pressure easier to exert. This is fine if its 1980 and the top tax rates are 70%, but less so when the public is generally aware that most of the fairly low Bush-era tax rates remain in place, and that rates have been in a constant, fairly narrow band for thirty years, under left and right wing administrations. What is more, by arguing that America’s tax rates are already low compared to the rest of the world, the Democrats would be able to rebuff the presumptions of the right, in the event of a Republican Presidency.
Speaking of presumption, there is another factor to consider. Libertarianism can really get Progressives’ backs up. For one, quotes from Ayn Rand such as “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue”, are toe-squirmingly obtuse to Left wingers.
Secondly, there is the priggishly pedantic approach of Libertarians to the Constitution. This rote, literal, mentality isn’t what the Founding Fathers intended. In a letter to Samuel Kercheval, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment… I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times”.
There is enormous scope for Libertarianism to become as anathema to the left as ‘socialism’ is to the right. Right now, Libertarianism exists in the abstract, as a spirit, and attitude. It is almost, but never quite ‘hip’. It would be a very different story once people came to terms with the implications of those principles being legislatively put into practice, and began to feel a touch of social-Darwinian frost in the air. The movement on the left that didn’t really materialize in the form of the Occupy movement, could materialize in the form of a Progressive movement extolling the virtues of the social contract and unifying in a bid to preserve it. Which they do by turning out in big numbers during the 2018 mid-terms. And the Democrats feel sufficiently emboldened by the results to further ignore the President’s agenda. And Washington essentially grinds to a halt. The 2010 mid-term pattern begins to look familiar: a listing administration, a fired-up opposition base. From then on, the Republican establishment would be looking over the administration’s shoulder. Having ceded sway of the party, and the benefit of the doubt to the Tea Partiers and Libertarians, so long as the right wing was in the ascendancy, they would, given the party’s declining fortunes, be conscious of an opportunity to begin a restoration of Establishment power.
Atlas Shrugs, followed by the Democratic caucus, then the public, then the Republican establishment.
All this brings things back to the original premise. On certain matters, and in terms of appointments, a President, through executive action, can have some effect. But in domestic policy terms, in the context of the ‘new normal’ instigated by the Republicans whereby a minority in one house of congress can have such inordinate sway, how much difference does it really make who gets elected President anymore?
Cross posted from SheppardPost.com
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.