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Seven Things Republicans Were For, Before They Were Against Them

3 years ago
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I happened to be in the room the day John Kerry said he had voted for a war-financing bill before he voted against it. Republicans appropriated the sentence (uttered at a 2004 town hall for veterans in Huntington, West Virginia) and used it to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper. Six years later, it's a better fit for the GOP than it ever was for him.

So many Republicans have changed their ideas on so many major issues that it's hard to keep up. With the return of Congress this week, two of those issues – campaign finance disclosure and climate change – could play out in the Senate over the next month.

What accounts for the shifts? Evolving principles? Pressure from the right? Political Strategy 101, block Democrats and President Barack Obama so they'll fail and look bad? Maybe a slightly more subtle approach -- find fatal flaws in a compromise that under other circumstances (say if a Republican president wanted it passed) you would support, on the theory that the perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the halfway decent or the baby step forward? All of the above? Here are seven reversals that hold clues:

1. Financial disclosure. Prominent Republicans have often made the case that transparency – not limits on campaign spending or contributions -- is the best antidote to corruption. "Republicans are in favor of disclosure," Sen. Mitch McConnell said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2000. Seven years later, on the same program, House GOP leader John Boehner declared: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Mitch McConnell, John McCainBut Boehner voted no last month on the DISCLOSE Act, which requires corporations, unions and some other groups to disclose more information about their campaign activities. It also imposes new restrictions on campaign spending by foreign firms, large government contractors and companies that get taxpayer bailouts. Boehner has said the bill favors some groups over others and would "shred the Constitution." McConnell agrees.

"There clearly has been a change of heart," Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, told me. She said Republicans are following the lead of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which has held that limits on spending are tantamount to limits on free speech. The result, she said, is a "knee-jerk political reaction to any attempts to disclose or regulate in any fashion the raising and spending of political money."

2. Cap and trade. Smithsonian magazine last year traced the history of "cap and trade" to a 1980s meeting of the minds between free-market conservatives and "renegade environmentalists." Their idea was to let companies buy and sell the right to pollute. The first Bush administration used such a system to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants to reduce acid rain. Emissions trading, as it was called then, was seen from the start as a model for dealing with the larger problem of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

But Republicans now tar cap and trade as a job-killing "cap and tax" system. Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, running for the Senate, renounced his vote in favor of cap and trade in the House last year. Sen. John McCain of Arizona co-authored a pioneering cap-and-trade bill and introduced it in 2003, 2005 and 2007, then did an about-face last year. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina stepped in to help write an ambitious economy-wide cap-and-trade bill, but he too has walked away. Some Democrats are now aiming to cap carbon emissions from utilities only, and even that could be a heavy lift.

3. Immigration. McCain, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy and President George W. Bush were the prime movers of comprehensive immigration reform in 2006. But Kennedy died, Bush left office and McCain has become a hard-liner as he fights a primary challenge from the right. The 2006 bill strengthened border security but also laid out a path to earned citizenship for some 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Obama said in a speech this month that "under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support."

The 11 Republicans who supported the 2006 bill and are still in the Senate are McCain, McConnell, Graham, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Bob Bennett of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Voinovich of Ohio. Obama had a message for them: "Without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."

4. Deficit spending. Republicans in the Senate have been holding up passage of emergency unemployment benefits for weeks because they want to offset the spending with budget cuts elsewhere. They are also loath to help states cope with rising Medicaid costs or avert mass layoffs of teachers, police and other employees, unless the money to offset the costs is found somewhere else. This call for discipline is a stark contrast to GOP actions during the Bush administration, when two wars, $1.3 billion in tax cuts and a major expansion of Medicare were financed with deficit spending (aka borrowing money).

Many Republicans now say they were wrong. But their timing suggests a double standard (OK to pay for Bush's priorities with borrowed money, but not Obama's). And the battle they have chosen to fight is puzzling. Even deficit hawks say that with more than 15 million unemployed, they're not worried about spending $34 billion for a benefits extension that's temporary and badly needed. As Robert Bixby, president of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition, memorably told The Boston Globe, "I just feel like unemployment benefits wandered onto the wrong street corner at the wrong time, and now they are getting mugged."

5. Bipartisan deficit-reduction commission established by Congress. This reversal early this year involved six Republican co-sponsors of such a commission who voted against their own Senate bill. The six were McCain, Brownback, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John Ensign of Nevada, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma. McConnell had once supported the idea, but he too voted against it. The bill required an up-or-down vote on the commission recommendations. McConnell and others said they feared the panel might suggest raising taxes.

Obama quickly formed a bipartisan commission by using an executive order, and the hope is that Congress will adopt its consensus proposals. Co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said it was "the saddest thing" to see "no" votes from senators who had fought for the congressional commission for years. "What was the purpose of that?" he asked at a bipartisan forum Sunday with several dozen governors. "As far as I can discern, it was to stick it to the president."

6. Individual insurance mandate. Conservatives and Republicans once favored a requirement that all or most people buy basic health insurance. Like cap and trade, it was conceived by free-market conservatives as a way to avoid harming the private sector. It also fit with conservative views of personal responsibility and the immorality of freeloading. In 1993, Republicans pushed it as an alternative to an employer mandate. Stuart Butler, a domestic policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, described the individual mandate in 2003 as a necessary part of a "social contract." Republican Mitt Romney signed a health law with a mandate in 2006, when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Now, however, Republican governors and attorneys general are suing the federal government over the individual mandate in the new health law, saying it is unconstitutional. Romney says the federal government has no right to impose such a plan on all states. Butler told me that experience in the last seven years with the federal employee health benefits system and with auto-enrollment (you're enrolled at work or school unless you opt out) suggests the requirement is not necessary to achieve a stable health insurance system with broadly shared risks. Obama's campaign position was similar, but health experts later changed his mind.

7. Medicare spending curbs. Democrats have financed their new health law in part by planning on nearly $500 billion in Medicare savings over the next 10 years. The proposal provoked months of attacks from Republicans. That was a dizzying role reversal from the days when Republicans used to recommend the same types of reductions in future Medicare spending (and had to play defense against attacks from Obama and other Democrats, now having their own role reversal).

In 1995, for instance, Republicans proposed cutting $270 billion over seven years. In 1997, McConnell and McCain were among the Republicans voting for a Balanced Budget Act that cut Medicare by $115 billion over five years. And in his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain proposed combined Medicare and Medicaid cuts of $1.3 trillion over 10 years. Yet last year, as he neared a re-election campaign in a state full of retirees, McCain led the fight against the Democrats' plans to trim Medicare.

Seven issues, scores of lawmakers, an epidemic of head-slapping and rethinking that corresponds to Obama's tenure and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Coincidence? Doubtful. Principles are in the mix, for sure, but nobody should mistake where they are sitting in the car. That would be the back seat, with politics at the wheel.

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66 Comments

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nbk4real

The republicans have less than zero credibility and it would seem neither do their supporters. To sit back now and critisize the democrats for the cost of the water thats putting out the fire they started is a perfect reflection of the hypocrisy of the supposed right/republican party. I hate to think the shape nation would be in had the republicans retained power in either the 06 midterms and or the executive branch. They drove the car off a cliff then threw the keys to Obama and stood back and did everything they could to keep it there. And if you cant see how they are using this to regain power your not paying attention. Sure the dems arent perfect but they are worlds better than the alternative.

July 16 2010 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
exitar01

Are all of the Republican comments so....well lame? I mean not one can site a republican senator or congressman saying what they stand for ( outside we say No to Obama) Boards like this are the barometer of the American pulse and all I hear is nothingness from conservatives. Tax cuts for the wealthy..if your're wealthy then you're probably not on this board. Complaints about Obama and liberals and Democrats. Why haven't any of you said the GW Bush stresses bi-partisanship during his first years in the whitehouse. Even after 9/11 he stressed bi-partisanship in congress. Forgot? Then Republicans gained control of all three branches and the Karl Rove playbook came out. Attack the person not what they stand for or want to do in congress. Flip flop for the entire republican base!

July 15 2010 at 1:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Cody

You forgot "drill baby drill, family values and term limits!

July 14 2010 at 6:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
vballbob

It's notable that the author finds fault in the changing opinions of the Repubs when it has become increasing obvious that the "progressive" thinking that the middle of the road Repubs had a few years ago has been shown to be harmful to the country. I approve that our representatives will not lock step to theories and policies which have proved detrimental to the country at large. This includes those on the other side of the isle who are courageous enough to go against the "party" line of the current administration few as that has been.

July 14 2010 at 1:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vballbob's comment
exitar01

What you said made no sense. Those middle of the road republicans are the ones who gave us the deficit. Now they're against it. just more politics you do not wish to see. They only changed thierminds because of who proposed it not what was proposed. The word that you mean is hypocrisy

July 15 2010 at 12:30 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
christierandall

well if you ask a republican what they are for they could not tell you..only that they are against whatever Obama proposes...they have admitted it is their agenda...make him fail.
I hope many of the republicans do not make it back. We need to get this country moving and they are not helping.

July 13 2010 at 11:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dcrosetti

You're right. That's why we need to look at every candidate who is standing for reelection and look at his/her record. Are they political windmills or do they stick to their values? Have they lied to us? Have they represented the best interests of America and not just themselves? If not, vote them out. Party doesn't matter. We will continue to vote them out until we get people in congress who stand for something. Sick of the liars. Vote them out.

July 13 2010 at 11:41 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
tep1000

i guess the title of the article would be the same as:

"seven things the democrats were against before they were for them".

if one side was against and is now for, then, by definition, the other side, in opposition, would have to have been for what they are now against.

so, how does that flip flop fit the articel. sounds like a predjudicial article to me.

July 13 2010 at 10:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
barney2022

Republicans are saying "no" to everything because they do not believe in socialism.

July 13 2010 at 7:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to barney2022's comment
J.M.

Please define socialism. Social programs have been a way of life in the U.S. since FDR. When you drive on a highway it's a product of social programs. Social Security, by definition, is a social program. Police, fire, and emergency care are social programs. Do you collect rain water for your home or is it delivered by common plumbing? Sheesh.

July 16 2010 at 7:43 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
valpfannenstiel

I don't see the mystery regarding, "Seven Things Republicans Were For, Before They Were Against Them." It's all about politics, and nothing else. Democrats have the same tendencies as well as independents, tea partier's and republicans. The thing I don't get is why people tolerate a FLIP-FLOPPER of any party. A flip-flopper is usually one of three things, uninformed in the first place, stupid, can't recall his original stance (strong case for stupid) playing to what voters want to hear but obviously not revealing his honest feeling regarding the issue, which is dishonesty too.
I think people we elect should have the courage to say what they believe, why they believe the way they do, and they might be pleasently surprised. Just about all elected officials short change themselves. Most folks want to respect their elected official at least as much as the teachers they had in school, but needless to say, the officials don't respect themselves. If a man wants to be a politian (a leader) gives us your honest presentation, even if you feel like your teaching us a new philosophy (which may well be the case)and the results maybe astonishing. FDR was not a fluke, I think he had integrity.

July 13 2010 at 4:13 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
judeduff

Jill, do you really want representatives who are inflexible in their ideas? If you planned two years ago to buy a home, but then had your hours and income cut back, would you still follow through on your plans? Times change, the economy rises and falls, and things that looked good eighteen months ago are no longer viable at this time. Plus, a bill you support on an issue goes to committee and no longer resembles the original bill. Think about Stupak--he supported healthcare reform, but wouldn't vote for it until he felt he had reassurances about taxpayer funded abortions. Are you saying he didn't want healthcare reform? You are taking a complicated issue and trying to make it simple to fit your agenda. I guess that every Democrat who ever voted against a bill a Republican presented only did so to thwart the Republican, right? Not because there were aspects of the bill they didn't agree with or anything nonsensical like that. Or not because they objected to the pork attached. Or because the timing was wrong for the spending involved. There were those who supported open borders before September 11th who no longer do--are they all flip-floppers, too, or can you recognize that a mature mind adapts as national and world circumstances change?

July 13 2010 at 2:41 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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