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 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," said Sen. Mitch McConnell 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."
But 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, in order 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 (okay 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 re-thinking 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.