The new highly acclaimed book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two old Washington hands has a poignant lesson for Florida’s Democrats.
As we have described in earlier chapters, much of the dysfunctionality Americans observe in their government is a direct consequence of the GOP’s unabashed ambition to reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means available. Political parties play a crucial role in every well-functioning democracy. They organize a complex political world into digestible choices for voters and provide a basis on which elected officials can act for their constituents and the country and for which citizens can then hold them accountable. Party differences are essential to democratic choice.
Very much the same thing has happened in Tallahassee for very different reasons. While national Republicans eventually were purged of their moderate northeastern and traditional Midwestern wings, here in Florida the party uniformly has moved right. We hear consistently about how the GOP has become a tea party oriented home to extremists in recent years. At the same time, with unchecked power in Florida, the RPOF and its elected leaders have resembled the inflexible conservatism of the national party. The irony is that prior to the past six to eight years, Florida Republicans were discernibly more moderate, less ideological and reasonable than national Republicans.
Florida’s Republicans were better on many issues than many Democrats. While the state moved forward thanks to the leadership of Reuben Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, Republicans in many cases provided critical votes and political cover against the most reactionary elements of the Democratic Party. Those elements were aligned with the likes of Dempsey Barron and various anti-government House leaders. On issues related to the environment and education, the GOP sometimes would make more sense than Florida’s Democrats. But those days are long gone.
The Florida GOP created a governing majority precisely because they were a big tent that often times rejected the most extreme elements nationally. But since roughly 2005, Florida’s Republicans boosted by the era of term limits and an impotent opposition party has become a laboratory to test the most right-wing of potential laws before they are pushed in other states and on the national level.
In a previous era, Democrats in Florida despite being a big tent party had a real agenda. Compromise is fundamental in governing, but when you are in the minority you have the obligation to articulate a clear opposition platform and give the state’s voters and temperamentally more moderate Republicans a starting point to foster compromise. If you must cut a deal, do so from a position of strength that reflects your political principles, not just for the sake of deal-making as many Democrats in Florida have in recent years.
Additionally, the Democrats must understand that the GOP is motivated by ideology and a quest for total power. Starting halfway with proposals (ie. towards the right of the political spectrum) and not understanding the ideological zeal and unwillingness to be reasonable that characterizes the new Florida GOP means the battle is lost before it begins.
Too often in recent years, Democrats have wanted to be liked by GOP aligned lobbyists and increasingly reactionary Republican legislative leaders. This has led to a disjointed caucus and an unwillingness to tackle the toughest issues that face Floridians.
Florida’s Democrats can learn a great deal from studying their own history and taking a look at the finer points of the national scene. Understanding the current landscape and the obligations of a minority party in a two-party system can only help make Florida’s Democrats more effective and more successful.