Fantasies, Budgets, and Democracy

If the Republicans proposed a federal budget for 2013-14 that relied on a rain of gold doubloons, all of which would happen to fall in the Federal government’s coffers, as the basis for U.S. fiscal planning we would laugh.  Or cry, if they were serious about relying on that assumption.

Yet can we react any differently when Paul Ryan says the House will offer a budget proposal that relies on repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act?   Such a repeal is even less likely than a rain of gold doubloons, given that Obama was re-elected and remains President, and has a Democratic Senate as well.

Silly as this spectacle is, far more important is the way it threatens the conduct of democracy around the world — and that is quite serious.  In a democracy, in order for politics to function, losers in elections must be good losers.  They must admit they lost, accept the victory of the opposition, and plan how to do better at the next election.  What we have seen in emerging democracies around the world is that when elites do not follow this pattern, but in fact refuse to accept defeat, or respond to defeat by trying to frustrate or overturn the policies of the victors, they discredit democracy for everyone.  Why should voters vote at all if politicians will disregard their votes as guides for policy?  Why have democracy at all if elections do not act to resolve difficult issues of political debate?  In newly emerging democracies, where elites treat elections as meaningless unless they win, the outcome soon is either violence or complete suppression of the opposition, and the loss of democracy.

I do not think the US is headed toward loss of democracy; our institutions are too well established for that.  But what kind of model is Ryan and his fellow Republicans presenting to emerging democracies around the world?  Is this the behavior that they should emulate?

Here are the facts.  The Republicans ran in 2012 on a platform of repealing Obamacare.  They lost — and lost big.  They suffered an ovewhelming defeat in the electoral college for President.  They failed to make any signficant gains in the Senate.  And while they held their advantage in the House, they actually lost in the tabulation of total votes for House members, where Democrats gained 500,000 more votes nationally than Republican candidates.  Republicans only held their advantage in House seats due to gerrymandered districts that allowed Republicans to turn small advantages in popular votes in southern and western states into large advantages in the number of Congressional districts they controlled in those states.

So Republicans ran on Obamacare and lost.  The voice of the public is clear —  they are willing to see the program enacted.  Either they like it or want to make up their own minds, but the idea that a majority of the electorate deeply wants to repeal Obamacare has been tested and lost.  It is time to recognize that the people have spoken — unless the Republicans have no regard for democracy and care less about what the voters want than what they and their campaign contributors desire.

If the Republicans still want to repeal Obamacare, they should craft a better message and try it with the voters again in 2014.  But for the next two years the voters clearly want the government to get on with crafting budgets and tackling other issues (like immigration, wars and terrorism, making education more affordable, and above all getting more jobs at better wages), and it should be the responsibility of Republicans to recognize they lost on that issue and move on.

That Ryan and the Republicans are still making repeal of Obamacare central to their current budget plan is a slap in the face of American voters, and shows Republicans turning their backs on the fundamentals of democracy.   Bad enough that this creates dysfunctional government at home.  Worse is the example it poses for emerging democracies abroad.  At a time when China is arguing that democracy is a weak and ineffective system (which the EU is doing its best to prove), for American politicians to willfully disregard the expressed will of American voters is shameful.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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