Friday, February 22, 2013

GOP: First signs of a new life form?

EVEN WHILE we lament what seems to be a Republican Party in its death throes, there are signs that, a long and merciful distance from the Beltway, Republicans on the ground around America are beginning to embrace the idea of American government as an exercise in the kinetic — in getting things done on behalf of their constituents.

In recent weeks, a slow trickle of Republican governors has emerged, all of them taking a U-turn away from party orthodoxy, and taking stands supporting what can only be described as populist, progressive initiatives — the kind that dovetail with those of the Democratic president.

Rick Scott is the most recent. In news that exploded into the Thursday news cycle, the Republican governor of Florida announced an about face on his previous stand against Medicaid expansion in his state. Now, Scott has decided to allow the expansion of the federal program, an act that could bring health care to 1 million Floridians at minimal cost to the state.

“While the federal government is committed to pay 100 percent of the cost, I cannot, in good conscience, deny Floridians the needed access to health care,” Scott said Wednesday at a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion, as reported by the Miami Herald.

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Scott’s on some kinda reformist roll. On Jan. 17, he announced plans to change state election law, and to introduce a plan to grow the number of early voting locations and dates “to help reduce wait times, long lines, and to better convenience voters.”

“We need more early voting days, which should include an option of the Sunday before Election Day,” Scott said in a statement, making an oblique reference to an African American electoral tradition in Florida. The governor also proposes to cut the length of Florida’s historically voluminous ballots.

“Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians’ confidence in our election system,” Scott said. “I want to ensure we do whatever possible to improve our election system from the statewide level.”

Well, better late than never. In the runup to the November election, Scott effectively stood in the polling-place door, refusing to extend the Sunshine State’s early voting.

Early voters, some of whom reported waited as long as four hours, were only inconvenienced. On Election Day, Scott’s refusal to resolve the predicted high-turnout bottleneck by extending early voting led to polling places being swamped, with some voters reporting having to wait up to six hours. One report estimated that as many as 200,000 Floridians were disenfranchised in the 2012 election.

With Scott apparently set to work with the legislature to craft a bipartisan bill making changes, this kind of Election Day nightmare is apparently on its way to being a thing of the past in Florida.

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IN RECENT weeks, Jan Brewer of Arizona; John Kasich of Ohio, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Rick Snyder of Michigan have recanted their previous positions against the Medicaid expansion, accepting one of the central components of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — as maybe the right thing for their states after all.

And what’s not to like? Under provisions of the Medicaid expansion, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs for the first three years, then reduce payments to 90 percent starting in 2020. Under the expansion, for example, Ohio could realize an additional 600,000 people with health care, at no/low cost to the Buckeye State.

And so ... after all the Fox bait, all the partisan posturing and gnashing of teeth, for Brewer, Kasich, Martinez and Snyder, it comes down to the math. It comes down to certain Republicans finally owning that most willfully ignored of political commodities: practicality.

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Late last year, Scott Walker, the once-embattled Republican Wisconsin governor, pulled his own apostate switcheroo in announcing he won’t end same-day voter registration in the Badger State, after a report from the state Government Accountability Board determined that ending it would cost $5.2 million that the state has better things to do with.

"There is no way I'm signing a bill that costs that kind of money," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in December. He called for an end to same-day registration altogether just days after the November election.

Walker’s volte face may still be spongy; he’s said to be leaving the door open to a challenge of same-day registration. But his willingness to leave same-day registration intact, based as it is on dollars and cents, would suggest that practicality will win out. “I'm trying to save money, not spend money,” he said in December.

On Thursday, Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and easily the most electable of GOP candidates in the 2012 primary season clown-car cavalcade, announced in The American Conservative that he supports gay marriage.

He wrote: “Marriage is not an issue that people rationalize through the abstract lens of the law; rather it is something understood emotionally through one’s own experience with family, neighbors, and friends. The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans.”

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IT’D BE a bit of a stretch to call this a trend. The power of conservative ideologues and their deep-pocketed supporters and right-wing media won’t be fading from the scene anytime soon. But there are precedent events enough to suggest that, here on earth, some Republican governors may be beginning to take back their party from the extremists and the Tea Party cabal, renouncing at least some conservative scorched-earth policies in recognition of the new post-election dynamic.

This is more political than altruistic (duh). But their motives beyond the political don’t really matter, anyway. Confronted with the results of the presidential election; the serial embarrassments of GOP and Tea Party leaders in Washington; and the fact of some of their own elections between now and 2014, they've seen the handwriting large on the wall — “ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES” — and acted accordingly.

It’s safe to speculate that, as governors in states red and blue begin to rethink the reflexive antagonism toward all things Democratic, more and more GOP senators will likely jump on the change-agent bandwagon. Empowered by the mutual cover they’ll give each other, they’ll feel more and more politically comfortable embracing a populist pragmatism the closer they get to their respective Election Days.

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You can’t make reversals like this without being taken seriously. Whatever the political motivation for these road-to-Damascus moments, they have consequences beyond the immediate acts themselves.

These insurgent actions, as few as they are, signal a willingness to go against the gridlock diktat of Republicans on Capitol Hill. These changes are coming from the states, the grassroots and governors that Capitol Hill depends on to know what the hell is happening in the country they represent. That’s why these departures from the party script matter so much.

And they point to what we should have expected: a political party coming to grips with what it’s lately turned into, trying to retrieve some measure of the party’s historical integrity one measure, one law, one bolt from the herd at a time.

A lot’s being made of how to “fix” the Republican Party, with some in the mainstream media talking of the GOP almost ruefully, looking back on the hypothetical good old days and lamenting where the party went wrong. One’s not inclined to be that sentimental. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. No one fixes a car like the one who built the car in the first place. Job #1: Open the garage door.

The Grand Old Party has been in need of a retrofit for a long time; there's good reason to think we’re seeing the beginning of that, in fits and starts, right now.

Image credits: Scott: Steve Cannon/Associated Press. Walker: Associated Press. Huntsman: Adam Hunger/Reuters/Newscom.

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