Tax Analysts Blog

A Republican Königgrätz?

Posted on Nov 11, 2014

In the late 1860s, the Second French Empire seemed on the verge of collapse. An economic downturn, combined with disastrous foreign adventures (particularly involving an attempt to enforce a regime change overseas), so tarnished the imperial brand that only a small minority of the previously loyal Corps Legislatif dared call itself Bonapartist. In desperation, Napoleon III (born Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) played his last card, making token liberal reforms and calling for a May 1870 plebiscite to reaffirm the empire. In a result that shocked the political classes, the emperor won 7.3 million of the 9 million votes cast. The imperial regime seemed safe. "I'm back to my old score," Louis said with glee, referring to the over 7 million voters who supported the establishment of the empire in 1852. By September, however, the Second Empire was swept away by Otto von Bismarck and its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

The GOP is now back to its old score. After being held responsible for the malaise and foreign adventurism of the George W. Bush administration, Republicans lost their Senate and House majorities in 2006. A massive recession pushed them even further into the minority in 2008, when voters rejected the GOP brand in favor of President Obama's message of hope and change. Former Rep. Tom Davis said the party's "brand is in the trash can." But on November 4, voters returned to office the most GOP House members since World War II and gave Republicans at least eight new Senate seats, enough to give them 53 in total (and assuming the GOP can win the runoff in conservative Louisiana, that number will rise to 54). They held 55 seats before the 2006 elections.

Imperialists hailed the plebiscite as guaranteeing the future of the French Empire, only to see it crushed by the Prussian war machine that tore through Europe on its way to unifying Germany and smashing the concept of a balance of a power. The collapse of Louis Napoleon's government was probably inevitable. The French weren't going to be able to defeat the Prussians in a war that was made inevitable by the Battle of Königgrätz (sometimes called Sadowa), which excluded the Austrians from German affairs and was widely seen by the educated classes as a decisive setback for French dominance of Europe. Future French President Adolphe Thiers shrewdly remarked in 1866 that "it was we who were beaten at Sadowa."

Will Republicans share the same fate as Napoleon III? After the euphoria from their 2014 victory fades, the GOP should be facing the same problems that doomed it to defeat in 2008 and 2012. Can the party win a presidential election in which turnout will be closer to 50 or 60 percent than 40 percent? That isn't clear.

After saying for weeks that the outcome of the election didn't really matter because Obama would never work with a Republican Congress, the media is now pushing the message that Republicans must show they can govern. But if the president doesn't cooperate, the new Congress's options are limited. The GOP might be able to pass a repeal of the medical device excise tax, but unless it's paid for, Obama won't sign it. For all the talk of broad agreement on business tax reform principles, the reality is that neither Obama nor the GOP is likely to try to push through a corporate rate cut that involves high individual or passthrough taxation. And for all of Rand Paul's talk of a repatriation holiday or other small-scale tax priorities, it's hard to see why the president or congressional leadership would spend time on those kinds of issues outside broad reform.

After the 1870 plebiscite, an imperial politician said, "Now we have won our own Sadowa." Immigration reform, which as discussed by the Senate has a significant tax and deficit reduction component, might be Republicans' chance to win their own voter base-broadening victory. The president would be hard pressed to find a reason to veto legislation that his party has already endorsed. And the specifics of the Senate bill will likely help the GOP with minority voters more than hurt it with hard-right conservatives opposed to any form of amnesty or pathway to citizenship.

If the Republican Congress doesn't want to take up immigration reform (perhaps it doesn't want to hand Obama another legacy issue, or maybe it won't have enough votes even with its expanded majority to compensate for conservative opposition), it must find another issue to show positive achievements during the brief window before the 2016 campaign ramps up. Tax reform is probably more difficult to tackle than an immigration overhaul, but the GOP must find legislation that shows it is a party capable of governing and appealing to the centrist, female, and minority voters who have flocked to the Democrats in the last two presidential elections. Otherwise it will find itself swept away by Hillary Clinton's version of the Prussian army.

Read Comments (3)

robert goulderNov 10, 2014

Ah, mes amis ... plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose !

amt buffNov 10, 2014

It's hard to show voters anything positive after the government has put itself
in such a deep fiscal hole. We've partied for decades on our children's money.
The foreseeable future holds nothing but pain and more pain.

The public knows that importing more poor people will make our problems worse,
not better. Just look at Western Europe.

travis rechNov 11, 2014

@amtbuff They could compromise on relatively benign social issues like
marriage equality or marijuana legality without compromising their fiscal
principles. Heck, in some cases a few of the social issues they could
compromise on would help the bottom lines fiscally. Politically speaking, it
wouldn't be hard to reframe these things as libertarian issues, the hard part
would be reframing them as christian issues.

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