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Republicans Won’t Play Fair Unless Democrats Make Them

The GOP's inconsistency on disaster relief is just the latest evidence of the party's procedural hypocrisy.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A week after Hurricane Harvey submerged Houston, it speaks volumes about asymmetries in U.S. politics that we’re left to wonder whether Republicans in Congress will be as magnanimous with the soon-to-be victims of Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, South Florida, and elsewhere. This question arises not from a dearth of ideological generosity, but from the striking contrast between how congressional Republicans, and particularly congressional Republicans from Texas, have responded to the needs of their own constituents recently and their intransigence toward Hurricane Sandy’s victims in New Jersey and New York in 2012.

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, supports swift relief to Harvey’s victims, but has been at pains to note the hypocrisy. “I have no sympathy for this—and I see Senator [Ted] Cruz and it’s disgusting to me that he stands in a recovery center with victims standing behind him as a backdrop,” he said on CNN last week. “He’s still repeating the same reprehensible lies about what happened in Sandy [and] called on Congress Wednesday morning to work fast on a bill to aid Texas after Hurricane Harvey.”

The disparity doesn’t stem only from geography, but also partisanship, and it isn’t limited to unprincipled disaster relief politics. The Republicans who tried to hold disaster relief dollars hostage from 2009-2016 were as disinterested in the plight of political others as they were in making President Barack Obama look competent. Republicans are likewise less interested in inflicting economic calamity by monkeying around with the debt limit on President Donald Trump’s watch than they were when they held the debt limit hostage against Democrats in 2011 and 2013.

This inconsistent behavior defines modern Republican politics, because the conservative value system subordinates basic notions of fair play to larger ideological goals. As the historian Rick Perlstein described it to me recently, that system “doesn’t uphold procedural neutrality except as a rhetorical weapon.”

There is no shortage of procedural hypocrisy in Democratic politics, either, but there is a basic, small-d democratic logic to the procedural ideals they aspire to—like universal ballot access, majority rule, not threatening the global economy—that is unmatched on the right. It is folly to imagine that a political media industry built upon a foundation of equal access will be able to relay this elemental difference between the two parties, or that an honest depiction of this difference within the media would have any impact on conservative behavior.

But that doesn’t mean liberals should just resign themselves to playing on a tilted field. Instead, they should seek to codify fair play wherever they can so that conservatives can’t weaponize their procedural hypocrisy.

Democrats quite conspicuously are not seeking ransom for a debt limit increase, which must pass before the end of the month. But they can and should, now or before the end of Trump’s term, make their support for avoiding default contingent on eliminating the debt limit (or increasing it for decades) so that Republicans aren’t empowered to turn around and take it hostage again next time a Democrat occupies the White House.

Likewise, Democrats should attempt to build automaticity into the way the government funds disaster relief, so that Republicans can’t sabotage a Democratic president responding to a disaster in a blue region. In other arenas, Democrats should commit themselves to abolishing the filibuster in the Senate, instituting proportional representation, and building out the national popular vote interstate compact. Over the long term, they should aspire to amend the Constitution to make voting an enumerated right, so that states can’t suppress votes except under extraordinarily compelling circumstances.

The reason to do these things is because they are morally right, irrespective of near-sighted political considerations, but the partisan reason is that unless fair play is required by law, Republicans will continue to demand procedural fairness and civic decency when it’s useful and dispense with it when it isn’t.