New York Times columnist David Leonhardt charges Republicans with “anti-democratic behavior”:
[T]oo many Republicans … have begun to ignore political traditions, and even laws, to exert power. While Democrats continue to play by more genteel rules, Republicans have subscribed to the Capone school of politics (as Sean Connery fans can recite): ‘They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.’
Leonhardt apparently forgot that President Obama campaigned on this very principle. Nevertheless, Leonhardt has some specific charges in his indictment:
‘In several states, Republicans have changed laws to reduce Democratic voter turnout. After Obama’s election, Mitch McConnell rallied Senate Republicans to oppose his policies — even if Republicans agreed with them! — to make Obama a failed president. This year, Republicans refused to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
These claims tend to fall apart upon examination, as does the claim that Democrats play by more genteel rules.
A GOP War on Democratic Turnout? Not So Much
Have Republicans changed laws to reduce Democratic turnout? Leonhardt relies upon another New York Times op-ed, written by Anna North, which asserted five ways Donald Trump and the Republican Party allegedly worked to suppress voting in 2016.
First, the GOP has supported voter ID laws, which the NYT crowd claims “disproportionately affect poor people, minorities and students.” Where there is evidence such laws were passed with discriminatory intent, they should be condemned. Where there is no evidence of such intent, there should be no problem for several reasons: 1) voter ID laws are overwhelmingly popular with whites, nonwhites, Democrats, and Republicans; 2) such laws have little to no impact on turnout; and 3) Democrats support unpopular laws that reduce turnout when they think it is to their political advantage, if the claim is that they play by “more genteel rules.”
Second, North (and by extension, Leonhardt) fault the North Carolina Republican Party for having restricted early and Sunday voting hours before the 2016 election. In reality, the NCGOP increased early voting hours overall, including evening and weekend hours, at more polling stations.
Third, North is upset that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have allowed automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices. But Leonhardt’s claim is that the GOP changed traditions and laws, when in fact Rauner refused to change them.
Republicans Did Not Change Laws or Target Minorities
Fourth, there is the claim that Republicans disenfranchise convicts, many of whom purportedly “are victims of laws enacted in Southern states specifically to disenfranchise African-Americans.” The reality is that criminal disenfranchisement was part of American law dating back to the earliest colonies, and was expressly permitted in both Northern and Southern states, e.g., by the New York constitution in 1821.
Most Southern states included similar provisions in their constitutions before the Civil War. Criminal disenfranchisement is expressly permitted by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and it was included in the state constitutions approved by Congress as a condition of Confederate states rejoining the Union after the war. Any disenfranchisement targeting minorities may be struck down as unconstitutional.
North singled out Virginia Republicans as “fighting to keep people with convictions from voting.” This is a euphemistic way of saying that Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe was sued for trying to circumvent existing Virginia law on the issue by executive order. The commonwealth’s supreme court found McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs in that lawsuit were unsuccessful in having McAuliffe held in contempt for reacting to the adverse ruling by issuing tens of thousands of supposedly individualized orders of clemency (wink, wink). Again, Leonhardt claims the Republicans are changing laws when in fact the reverse was true in Virginia.
Democrats Have Acknowledged Elections Can Be Corrupt
Fifth, North pointed to Trump’s warning to watch polling booths, because Trump had heard stories about “certain areas” of Pennsylvania. Although Trump was probably unwise to make claims about “rigged elections” because they could have suppressed his own vote, Philadelphia has a long history of corrupt elections, as acknowledged by everyone from Chris Matthews to the New York Times.
Trump’s comments were viewed by North as an invitation to voter intimidation, but the NYT editorial North cited acknowledged that it was “unclear whether volunteers who sign up through Mr. Trump’s website will receive information about becoming official poll watchers or will be encouraged to monitor polling places informally.”
North and the NYT editorial board also suggested that the RNC was coordinating with the Trump campaign regarding so-called “ballot security” efforts. In reality, the RNC opposed such efforts.
Leonhardt apparently did not follow up on this issue. Joseph Defelice, Philly’s GOP chair, alleged that Democrats across the city were excluding official poll-watchers and court-appointed minority inspectors from polling places on Election Day.
Unprecedented Republican Obstructionism? No
Leonhardt also claims that Sen. McConnell rallied his colleagues to oppose Obama’s policies, even if Republicans agreed with them, particularly Obamacare. He glosses over part of the cited article in which McConnell claims “his party had offered Democrats a chance for a deal on health care but blamed them as being inflexible.”
In the same article, the NYT reporters acknowledge that “[t]he extent of Republican unity to date is attributable to some degree to Democratic missteps.” This seems to be Times-speak for incidents like President Obama dismissing GOP concerns over his stimulus proposal by saying, “I won.” Or the healthcare summit where Obama told Sen. John McCain,”the election is over.”
Obama’s early legislative priorities, particularly Obamacare, were pursued in an entirely partisan manner. But McConnell is somehow ignoring political norms by urging fellow members of the opposition party to be in opposition because he was elected by them to lead the opposition. The particulars on this score range from mythical to mundane expressions of typical partisanship. Leonhardt seems to be confusing anti-Democrat behavior with anti-democratic behavior.
Lastly, Leonhardt is apparently shocked that the GOP-controlled Senate declined to vote on Obama’s lame-duck Supreme Court nominee. There was historical precedent for this position. Moreover, prominent Democrats from Joe Biden to Chuck Schumer had espoused similar positions in recent years. If anyone has pushed the envelope regarding the norms on nominations, it’s Democrats, not Republicans.
Do Democrats Play by More Genteel Rules? Nope
Indeed, Leonhardt’s claim that Democrats have played by “more genteel rules” is risible. The party that made “Bork” a verb and filibustered GOP appeals court nominations can hardly be called dainty. Senate Democratic leaders even tried, but failed, to filibuster Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
At least, the filibuster was their preferred approach until they regained the majority, at which point they nuked it for most presidential nominations. This is how genteel Democrats respect long-standing political norms.
When it comes to the integrity of elections, genteel Democrats are currently flooding the media with claims that the 2016 election was “hacked by Russia.” The claim is not only baseless, but nearly impossible.
Our genteel President Obama, when asked whether he had the legal and constitutional authority to unilaterally delay Obamacare’s employer mandate, replied that he did not care about those who had raised the question. We know he blew off this contentious legal question because he was asked by… the New York Times.
Obama’s Administration Has Been Far From Genteel
Perhaps people who write for the New York Times found it genteel when Obama made four “recess” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, despite the fact the Senate remained in session. The Supreme Court, in contrast, unanimously found it an unconstitutional interference with the Senate’s broad Constitutional authority to determine how and when to conduct its business, not to mention long-standing historical practice.
Perhaps some think the Obama administration was genteel when it attempted to rewrite federal immigration law by executive fiat. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (affirmed by a divided Supreme Court) enjoined the gambit, noting that Congress had repeatedly declined to enact to policy at issue.
Similarly, the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of staying implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP was an unprecedented attempt to impose the sort of cap-and-trade regime for carbon emissions that Congress had failed to enact.
More generally, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency developed a reputation for abuse. One top Obama EPA official resigned after declaring his methods for dealing with oil and gas companies were “like when the Romans conquered the villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into little villages in Turkish towns and they’d find the first five guys they saw and crucify them.”
Is It Really Surprising That Republicans Won This Year?
This list is hardly exclusive. The examples provided, however, might suggest that seeking to “crucify” regulated entities and attempting to impose national policies rejected by Congress is not exactly genteel. Indeed, one might characterize such acts as ignoring political traditions and even laws to exert political power.
Inside the NYT newsroom, it probably does not occur to writers like Leonhardt that the last eight years have appeared to many Americans as the Capone school of governance. It probably does not occur to them that this may be a significant reason why Obama became the first incumbent president since George Washington to win reelection with less popular and less Electoral College support. It also probably does not occur to them that this may be a significant reason why the Republican Party has gained more power outside the White House than at any time since the Great Depression, and has now won the White House as well.
Obama and the Democrats brought a gun to a knife fight. Predictably, people like Leonhardt now see them as the victims. Projection is not currently an effective political strategy, but maybe it is preferable to taking a look in the mirror.