Defiant in Defeat: Why the debt ceiling fight won't hurt Alabama Republicans
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Oct 19, 2013 | 4458 views |  0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks with security after talking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, in Washington. Sen. McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are optimistic about forging an eleventh-hour bipartisan deal preventing a possible federal default and ending the partial government shutdown after Republican divisions forced GOP leaders to drop efforts to ram their own version through the House. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks with security after talking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, in Washington. Sen. McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are optimistic about forging an eleventh-hour bipartisan deal preventing a possible federal default and ending the partial government shutdown after Republican divisions forced GOP leaders to drop efforts to ram their own version through the House. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Last week's debt crisis may already feel like old news, but Southside resident Johnny Phillips is ready to go another round.

Phillips, a construction company vice president and self-identified tea-partier, said he'd be disappointed if Alabama's congressional delegation didn't try again to block the raising of the federal government's debt ceiling.

"For me, the debt ceiling is a no-brainer," said Phillips, a founder of the Northeast Alabama Tea Party Association. "It's too high already, and it's the result of bad policy. We've got to stop somewhere."

Voters like Phillips may be the reason Alabama's legislators weren't afraid to tiptoe up to the edge of the fiscal cliff last week, political scientists say — and they may drive yet another debt standoff in the future.

Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans were big losers in the fiscal showdown that ended in Washington last week. For 16 days, the federal government was shut down when Republicans in Congress refused to approve a spending resolution for the new fiscal year, saying they wanted to halt implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. GOP lawmakers also balked at raising the limit on the nation's debt, despite warnings from economists that a failure to raise the limit could lead to an economic collapse. Both issues were resolved in a last-minute compromise passed Wednesday night.

Nationwide polls show support for both Republicans and their tea party faction at historic lows after the standoff. Those numbers had some analysts saying the fiscal standoff may have hurt the GOP's chances in swing districts in 2014.

But in Alabama and across the Deep South, political scientists say, it's likely nothing will change.

"If I'm (Rep.) Mike Rogers, I'm not worried about a Democratic opponent," said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University. "I'm worried about a primary challenger."

And primary challenges in “safe” GOP districts, political scientists say, are likely to come from the right.

Voter dissatisfaction

Polls suggest that in the wake of the debt crisis, Americans are more than ready to throw out their current representatives. In a survey done last week by the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of people nationwide said they didn't want to see their incumbent lawmaker re-elected. That's the highest number Pew has recorded over the last 24 years — higher than Pew recorded in 1994 or 2010, years when the House changed hands from Democrats to Republicans.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found only 24 percent of respondents reporting a favorable view of Republicans, while only 21 percent hold a favorable view of the tea party.

The 2012 elections left the House with 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats. Political scientists say the debt crisis could cost the GOP some seats in the House in 2014.

"Nationwide, it will hurt Republicans," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. "In the South, it will have the opposite effect."

Most Republican voters in the South supported the shutdown, Woodard said, and displays of opposition to President Barack Obama are still popular in the South. Woodard said that in an informal poll he conducted, he saw support for Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dipping during the Syrian crisis a few weeks ago — simply because Graham went to the White House to discuss options.

"It's part of our history that we don't fit in," he said. "Southerners are OK with that. We're content to be out of the mainstream."

Still, there's more than regional culture at work in the debt standoff. Woodard and others who spoke to The Star said that more than ever, Congressional districts are drawn to give an advantage to the incumbent member's party. That means that when lawmakers look over their shoulders, they're trying to outsmart primary opponents, not the other party.

Six of Alabama's seven seats in the House of Representatives are held by Republicans. Of the seven representatives, only Rep. Terri Sewell of Birmingham and Rep. Spencer Bachus of Vestavia Hills voted in favor of the deal to end the government shutdown and the debt crisis.

Sewell is a Democrat. Bachus, a Republican, isn't seeking re-election.

Die-hards

"The traditional model in a democracy is that voters choose their representatives," said Brad Moody, a professor of political science at Auburn University Montgomery. "With computers and political control of redistricting, what really happens is that representatives choose their voters."

Gerrymandering is an old practice, Moody said, but information technology has helped politicians fine-tune it, shaping districts weighted toward a specific party.

Brown, the Athens State professor, said the focus on primaries has led some GOP lawmakers to a tough choice. They may genuinely fear the effects of a shutdown or debt default, but they don't want to anger their base and open the door to a primary challenge.

"They can't get at odds with these die-hard groups," he said.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, originally expressed skepticism about the government shutdown. In a town hall meeting in Oxford in September, he said he wouldn't support a shutdown unless he could be assured it wouldn't delay military pay.

Audience members pressed him to commit to a shutdown, saying military pay would only be delayed, not halted, and that any shutdown would be Obama's fault.

On Wednesday, Rogers voted against the compromise bill that ended the shutdown.

"This bill passed without my support, in part, because it is just a short-term fix, does not move our country in the right direction and does not address the very concerning shortfalls facing our national security," he wrote in a prepared statement after the vote.

Submarines and battleships

Moody said another battle is possible when the debt limit again comes up for review Feb. 7.

"I don't see how it wouldn't be any fiercer" than the October shutdown battle, he said.

"Still, it will be fierce," he said. "The same imperatives and the same feelings are there."

Others think the GOP may want to steer away from the issue as elections draw nearer.

"The Democrats and the president have won," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "The Republicans are going to have to cut their losses."

Black said the GOP still has time to focus attention on the bug-riddled rollout of the Affordable Care Act's health care exchanges, a story that was almost lost in the debt ceiling headlines. He said the president is making a strategic error by moving to the issue of immigration next, rather than focusing on fixing the website for the exchanges.

Asked for comment on the possibility of a second fiscal showdown, Rogers’ spokeswoman Shea Snider responded with an emailed statement.

“Congressman Rogers hopes the House and Senate will reach consensus on a budget in the coming months to avoid more gridlock in Washington early next year,” she wrote.

Most of the political scientists who spoke to The Star said that with the general election more than a year away, there's time for Republicans to recover from the shutdown — though if Democrats took the House and held onto the Senate in 2014, it would present a new problem for the GOP stronghold that is Alabama.

"I'm afraid some of the younger residents of Alabama don't understand that some of the federal largesse that exists here, exists because people in Congress were able to talk to each other," Brown said.

Brown said Huntsville's space industry, for instance, was built on deals made by Alabama lawmakers in a time when legislators could put partisan politics aside. The style now, Brown said, was for Congress to engage in "acerbic, personalized rhetoric."

In that environment, he said, a Democratic majority may not be willing to grant favors to a Republican minority. And Republicans may no longer know how to ask.

"You're better off with representatives who are submarines, rather than battleships," he said. "These days, we have lots of battleships, with their guns blazing."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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