Defunding the Left

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 2:47 PM EDT

Dave Weigel says that Republican governors like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and John Kasich are "using the power to push through structural political and economic changes that will be hard to reverse. They're making the same bet Obama did — if they do this, the economy will rebound, and their political opponents will have been weakened in a way they may never recover from." Jonathan Bernstein disagrees:

Really? I don't think so. The clearly analogue for what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin would have been card check for the Democrats; they didn't do that. Nor did they pass a campaign finance bill to tilt the future playing field (Democrats did eventually push fairly hard for a minor campaign finance bill after Citizens United, but it wasn't even on the agenda before that). Nor did Democrats take advantage of their temporary 60 vote supermajority in the Senate to flood the federal courts with liberal judges. For that matter, there's nothing magic about 60, and Democrats certainly could have refashioned the Senate into a majority-rules institution, and then passed whatever they wanted even when they "only" had 58 or 59 votes.

The Democrats didn't even bother to secure two solid votes in the Senate by passing DC statehood.

I'm with Jonathan on this one. I just finished a short piece for the next issue of the magazine about Republican efforts to push through structural changes that either permanently defund the left or reduce its voting strength. In the past, that included efforts to defund public interest law groups, ongoing battles to degrade the power of private sector unions, promotion of "pack and crack" redistricting that limited the influence of minority voters, and support of tort reform rules that hurt trial lawyers. More recently, it's included their assaults on public sector unions, the defunding of ACORN, and tenacious efforts to pass voter ID laws aimed at making it harder for minorities, the young, and the poor to vote.

One question my editors had when I turned in the piece was an obvious one: don't liberals do this too? And if they don't, why not?

As near as I can tell, the answer to the first is no, they don't. The closest equivalent would be serious campaign finance reform that reduced the power of rich people and corporations, but there's never really been a ton of support for that among working politicians on the left. What's more, really hardcore campaign finance reform would hit hard at a lot of Democratic donors too, not just Republican ones. Even in the best case, it would probably tilt the playing field only modestly.

As for the second question, I don't have a clue. I very much doubt it's because we're nicer guys than our counterparts, so it must be something else. Maybe it's just plain harder to defund conservative support groups like the NRA, the Christian right, big business, and rich people. Maybe it's because Democrats depend too much on rich people and corporations themselves. Or maybe it's something else. Both sides fight for their own preferred policies just as hard as the other, but when it comes to attacking the other side's basic infrastructure, Republicans are unquestionably more ruthless and creative than Democrats. Anybody have some interesting guesses about why this is?1

1By "interesting," I mean something other than "conservatives are all a bunch of shameless thugs, so what do you expect?"