Last week’s announcement from a group of State Senators of a new transportation package has dominated the political news in Washington State. NPI founder Andrew Villeneuve explained the numerous flaws of this proposal here on the Cascadia Advocate. But it’s also worth taking a step back and examining what this proposal means for the future of our state – and of its political leadership.
Its unveiling ought to be interpreted by Democrats as a sign that the new Republican Party – much more extremist, power-hungry, and determined to destroy Democrats rather than govern effectively – has finally arrived in Washington State.
For the last thirty-five years, the Washington Republican Party has been a largely Reaganite party: deeply anti-tax, skeptical of new regulations, and strongly backed by social conservatives. As with Reagan himself, however, these Republicans have often been willing to make deals as needed, as long as doing so did not force them to fundamentally compromise their core beliefs. You could talk to these people. Let’s not romanticize them: it was not a friendly or reasonable party.
But it was a group that could exist as a minority party in a blue state without seeking to destroy everything in its path in their pursuit of power.
Outside of Washington State, this kind of Republican Party had already been replaced by the modern unyielding Republican Party – a party far more extreme and even less interested in compromise.
Whereas President Reagan and Republicans of his era were willing to cut deals as needed, the 2010s Republican Party sees no need to do so.
They believe – correctly, as it has turned out – that the way to get their policy goals implemented is to destroy the Democratic Party, seize all the levers of government, and just do it themselves. Why cut a deal now when refusing to deal will produce big wins at the next election and eliminate the opposition?
When this modern Republican Party controls only part of government – the situation we see now in Washington State – their sole interest is to undermine Democrats in order to win total power on their own.
This was the playbook that congressional Republicans used to undermine Democrats, especially President Barack Obama, after the 2008 election.
President Obama believed that he was still dealing with a Reaganite party, a party with which you could cut a deal.
As he learned the hard way, the modern Republican Party is not interested in cutting deals with Democrats. They opposed Obama from day one, rallying their base to resist every single Democratic proposal – even those, like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that had been invented by Republicans themselves. They have become much more extreme than anything we see in the Democratic Party.
This no-holds-barred opposition crippled the federal government. The results have been ruinous for America. But they have been an unquestionable success for Republicans. They reversed the results of both the 2006 and 2008 elections by seizing not only the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, but winning a significant number of state legislatures and governor’s offices.
Where those gains gave Republicans total control, as in Wisconsin or North Carolina, they unleashed a radical, extremist agenda that rolls back the political and policy gains of the 20th century. In every single state where this far-right agenda was implemented – with Pennsylvania being the sole exception – voters returned those same extremists to power in the 2014 midterms.
That 2014 election, in fact, saw Republicans make even greater gains. Democrats had what was one of their most catastrophic elections in decades, losing not only the U.S. Senate, but also losing governorships and state legislative houses in deep blue states like Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Maryland.
In Washington State, Republicans tightened their grip on the state Senate and came within just a few seats of taking the state House.
Judging by the playbook they’ve used in other states, and in Congress, we can expect that the next steps here in Washington State will be for the Republicans to focus on undermining remaining Democratic power, grinding government to a halt and denying Governor Jay Inslee and House Democrats victories in order to make them look ineffective ahead of the crucial 2016 election.
Which brings us to the Senate transportation plan.
It is not intended to be a viable transportation package, though Republicans will surely be able to live with it were it to pass. It is really a trap, a “plan” whose primary purpose is actually to divide and then conquer Democrats, turning the blue coalition against itself ahead of the 2016 election.
This should be obvious from even a cursory glance at the proposal. It does not offer Sound Transit enough revenue to both finish the spine from Everett to Tacoma and build rail to a new Seattle neighborhood, whether it’s Ballard or West Seattle. Rather than unite city and suburb in support of rail, it divides them.
The plan divides urban and suburban Democrats in other ways, offering funds for suburban megaprojects but refusing to add any more money for the State Route 99 deep bore tunnel. It divides environmentalists, urbanists, and unions by including poison pills that would divert revenue from sustainable transportation to highway projects if Governor Inslee were to adopt a low pollution fuel standard, as well as undermining prevailing wage rules and other worker protections.
The revenue sources are themselves designed to undermine Democrats. Sound Transit would have to get voters to approve three different revenue sources in order to build their new projects. Rather than charging polluters, as Governor Inslee has proposed, the Senate plan would raise the gas tax to pay for projects.
That may seem like a welcome change from the Reaganite era anti-tax ideology of Washington Republicans. But in reality it’s part of a national effort to hurt the poor and the middle class – as well as weaken Democrats.
This week, The New York Times examined how Republicans in states across America are raising taxes on the poor while cutting them for the rich.
This is the same game Washington Republicans are playing, having vowed to block any new taxes – like a capital gains tax on the rich – but instead proposing to raise gas taxes, which are borne more heavily by the poor.
The gas tax proposal is not just regressive – it’s also crafted to hurt Democrats. In 2014 Republicans picked up several blue state governorships by running against gas tax increases, particularly in Maryland.
Republicans also used the gas tax as an issue in their successful bids to pick off four Democratic members of the Washington State House.
Republicans are therefore laying a trap for Democrats, particularly Governor Inslee, by proposing a gas tax increase. As we saw in California in the late 2000s, Republicans will force Democrats to make concession after concession in order to agree to provide the votes to pass a package.
But when it comes time to vote, Republicans will only offer the absolute minimum number of votes necessary to pass a plan – forcing all Democrats to vote yes, while most Republicans vote no and then attack the plan on the campaign trail.
Observers will note that State Senator Andy Hill, a possible candidate for governor in 2016, was nowhere to be found at the Senate press conference last week announcing the transportation package.
Many Democrats understandably pine for the good old days, when Republicans were ideological but still somewhat reasonable – people whom you may not have agreed with, but with whom you could still sit down and hammer out a deal.
But those days are gone, and they are not coming back, at least not anytime soon. Democrats need to learn that the way to get good policies enacted, and to win elections, is to accept that modern governance is defined by constant partisan warfare – and then commit to winning that war.
Democrats and their coalition members should unite in opposition to the proposed transportation plan, attack its weaknesses, and drive down public support for it. Several Democratic senators, led by Pramila Jayapal and Kevin Ranker, seem to understand this, and came out in opposition to the Republican plan.
House Democrats should get to work crafting a transportation plan that meets the needs of their members and the state’s progressive coalition, as well as appealing to voters in swing districts. Whether or not Senate Republicans would support such a plan should be a distant concern – since the only way to get Senate Republicans to vote for it is to scare them into doing so.
Education, the other big battlefield of the 2015 session, will play out the same way. Republicans will offer a plan that undermines and divides the Democratic coalition, with an eye toward defeating Democrats in 2016.
Democrats will need to respond with a plan that funds their McCleary and smaller class size obligations without giving in to Republican poison pills.
For example, rather than try to avoid the voter mandate in I-1351 to shrink class sizes, Democrats should wholeheartedly embrace it, propose a progressive way of paying for it, and hammer Republicans for opposing smaller class sizes when they inevitably reject the funding source.
Too many Democrats across the country have been slow to learn the lessons of this new Republican Party. The best way to think about them is the way Kyle Reese described the cyborg from the future in 1984’s The Terminator:
Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
That is how the modern Republican Party thinks of Democrats.
The only response, as distasteful as it may be for some, is for Democrats to do all they can to keep Republicans out of power… and govern the state themselves, like reasonable, sensible adults. Washington State Democrats should show the rest of the nation how it can be done. The 2015 session is the moment for Democrats to adapt to the new reality – and then thrive in it.