Monday, October 21, 2013

Ted Cruz Plays With Fractions And Factions

Ted Cruz Plays With Fractions and Factions

How many of you woke up this morning with the phrase “Federal Ratio” on your lips?

Provocative, isn’t it?  Not unlike a data point from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  While it certainly makes you want more, it could probably use some context. 

So, how about an alternative:  “Thomas Jefferson Used The Federal Ratio to (Legally) Steal Presidency in 1800.”

Before you go looking for hanging chads (and the election of 1800 was a doozy, with 37 votes in the House of Representatives) I want to bring you back to the First Fraction.

“Federal Ratio” refers to Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

In short, that’s the Three-Fifth’s Clause, which made slaves three-fifths of a person.  It still stings to look at, enshrined, as it was, in one of our most sacred documents. All of us are aware of the moral evil of slavery, but to think that a living, breathing, “Person” could be characterized as anything less than a full human being shocks the conscience.

And yet, the self-evident ugliness of the Federal Ratio obscures the fact that without it, we would never have had a Constitution, and, for that matter, never had a nation. The South simply wasn’t going to agree.  Why count slaves at all, since the South considered them not men but property?  That was a tradeoff between Northern economic interests and Southern political ones.  In the years before income tax, the North wanted to be sure the South paid taxes and fees proportionate to their actual population.  The South, needless to say, felt differently about how their “chattel” should count. On the other hand, the South also feared the faster-growing Northern states would come to dominate the electoral map unless structural impediments were put in place. 

So, in today’s parlance, to “make the deal” the Constitution enshrined this horrible injustice. And, if you accept Garry Wills’ argument in “Negro President” the numerical edge that the Three-Fifths Clause earned Jefferson 73 electoral votes to John Adams’ 67.  Wills calculates that the Federal Ratio may have swung 12 Electoral votes in Jefferson’s direction.  His work has been disputed by some historians, but the fact remains that between 30% and 40% of the total population of Maryland, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia were slaves, and applying 3/5 of that number swelled the Electoral Vote count of those states.  Put a different way, Massachusetts had almost 422,845 free  residents in 1800 and Virginia about 539,181.  But because Virginia also had 346,968 slaves, they received 21 Electoral Votes to Massachusetts 12. 

The Federal Ratio is but one of a series of compromises enshrined in the Constitution’s intricate machinery for balancing interests.  The makeup of the Senate is a second, with small states wielding a disproportionate impact.  Others include gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the power of  both the House and the Senate to draw their own procedural rules. At their best, these interrelated levers of power force compromise.  At their worst, they just help people game the system, either by suppressing dissent, or facilitating unjust outcomes that do not reflect the will of the majority.

The Founders clearly knew this.  They were very concerned about the formation of political parties and particularly sensitive to the dangers of factions.  This didn’t stop them from being elitists.  The Electoral College and the selection of Senators by State Legislatures ensured that the best and the brightest wouldn’t cede too much control to the unwashed and uneducated.  But they anticipated that, eventually, the aristocrats would sort things out, and in Madison’s words in Federalist 10 relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.”  

The Founders never met Ted Cruz.   I am not sure what he thinks the Federal Ratio is, but it clearly excludes any calculation of people who oppose his puritanical views.

Any discussion of Cruz inevitably brings us to the unpleasant math of the current crisis. The short term deal struck between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell merely delayed the inevitable.  The two sides are going to have to engage substantively and come up with some sort of bargain (Grand or otherwise) on the big issues.

Unfortunately, bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans cannot be even addressed until a more explosive one amongst Republicans and the Tea Party is resolved.  While the GOP has a coherent policy and a “median” political philosophy, the various factions (the New York Times identifies six discreet blocs just in the House) prioritize things differently and cannot agree on tactics.  Even more importantly, they can’t agree to empower anyone to negotiate for them.  In short, the new joint committee chaired by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan is almost certainly doomed to failure.  Expect it to fall apart in December in a cascade of mutual recriminations.  It is not that Ryan and Murray aren’t knowledgeable and able—they are.  But Ryan won’t have the ability to deal, because he won’t have the ability to bind his caucus to any compromise.

The bizarre aspect of this is that a majority of Republicans (both inside Congress and in the business community) would love deputize Ryan; he is very conservative and very pro-business. They can’t, because a determined minority, led by Cruz, threatens to pull the pin out of the hand-grenade every time the word compromise is uttered.  That minority fails to recognize that the refusal to bargain reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the architecture that the Founders created.  Even the Federal Ratio, as repulsive as it is, has a purpose—to balance competing interests and leave both sides with something.

Mitch McConnell’s eleventh hour intervention was in keeping with this more traditional path of exchanging priorities, while giving his party a way to stop the bleeding.  And by gathering up more than enough votes in the Senate, he provided political cover for those who had to choose purity out of necessity rather than passion.  But he also left the GOP House with a stark choice; either take the deal now and live to fight again, or jump into the pyre and play martyr. 

Not this earned him a lot of gratitude.  Over 60% of House Republicans preferred self-immolation, including a chunk of the House GOP leadership and 71 of the 80 termed by The Times as the “Tea Party Core” and “Shut Down Strategy” blocs.  Among the true believers “McConnell” has almost become as dirty a word as “Obama” (almost, let’s not get carried away.)

That brings us back to the ringleader of the failed strategy, Ted Cruz, who has gone on to serial ranting.  He careens from open mike to open mike, veering between fantastic claims about Obamacare, and highly personal condemnations of those of his fellow Republicans who he deems to have stabbed him, and the cause, in the back. Ted Cruz sees himself as a Tribune of the American People.

But, back in the land of the sane, Cruz has people worried, because the only rules he plays by are the ones he devises.  As the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker said last week in the Washington Post, “Cruz is a mirage, an idea conjured in a fantasy that can’t be realized in reality. Like many successful politicians (and narcissists), he reflects back to others their own projected needs and desires. But then reality sets in — the debt-crisis deadline looms, or the defunding ruse is exposed as theater — and only dust and dung remain among the shards of mirrored glass.”

“Dust and dung” were a little harsher than I was going for.  I was just looking for better math.  Unfortunately, with Cruz, the only number he cares about is One.   

Michael Liss (MM)

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