Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Six More Weeks of Ideological Winter?

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

February 7, 2014

What would it take to reboot the political debate for 2014 to give more attention to policy issues in their own right and less notice to the ideological dynamics that engulf them? Some will answer that there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest such a rebooting. But in the last two weeks, some movement on this front has come from both the president and from Republican leaders.

Widely expected to launch a major initiative on income inequality in his State of the Union address, President Obama resisted that temptation. The language of income inequality is the language of redistribution, most associated with big government, and that would have restarted an endless loop of accusation and rebuttal, our political version of Groundhog Day

Instead, the president kept his proposals modest and discrete, with a focus on extending unemployment benefits, hiring the long-term unemployed, and raising the minimum wage. The modesty, of course, stems from the need to craft initiatives he can undertake without Congress. But it is under precisely those circumstances that he might have been tempted to bundle all his initiatives under some grand rhetorical design.

One consequence, as Michael Gerson observed in this column, is that workable ideas, like expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and launching the “MyRA” retirement accounts for those who don’t get these through work, may come into being without getting on the wrong side of polarized politics. 

Speaker Boehner set a similar tone in his remarks to the Republicans gathered on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to seek agreement on an immigration policy strategy. The G.O.P., the Speaker declared, must not settle for being the “opposition” party but must become the alternative party. Amen to that. Alternatives are positive and substantial. They criticize the status quo but offer substitute proposals, which in turn are open to criticism. On immigration, the G.O.P.’s brief set of principles could contribute to a constructive debate.

We shall see if constructive debate now follows. Congress could still pass an extension to emergency unemployment benefits if the Democrats allow vulnerable Republican senators to add offsetting cuts in spending to the bill to demonstrate fiscal responsibility ahead of primary election challenges. 

If the tone is changing, the 2014 primary election season provides a good first test. Unsurprisingly, although Democrats have to defend twenty-one Senate seats to the Republicans’ fourteen, almost all of the serious challengers are to be found in the Republican primaries. Given the difficulty of defeating incumbents, challengers usually reach for superlatives to bash incumbents and promote themselves—which they did with unprecedented success in the 2010 Republican Senate primaries. If primary electorates reject those challenges, however, there would be the makings of a more serious, policy-oriented, and less ideologically driven politics.

Since 1946, only 5 percent of incumbent senators have lost a primary election. Larry Sabato, Director of the UVA Center for Politics, predicts the three most vulnerable Republican incumbents, Thad Cochran (MI), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Mitch McConnell (KY), will all survive their primary challenges and indeed go on to win their general election contests, albeit narrowly. Margins of victory, including Senator Graham’s ability to win 50 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff between the top two challengers, as South Carolina election rules require, will provide further information. But victory by whatever margin will confirm that the high tide of the Tea Party movements has passed.

I am contending that a lower ideological temperature could facilitate a more reasoned approach to policy issues. A possibility falls well short of a prediction, however. And it does not take into account the way that well-financed groups, to say nothing of cable outlets, will seek to ratchet up the ideological warfare again after the primary season. But there are signs that the political leadership in Congress and the White House are taking a different tack. Perhaps there are just six more weeks of ideological winter!

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”