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The party of Lincoln

W. Ray Kwame Williams | 9/26/2013, 2:59 p.m.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 to combat the extension of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president in 1860. The party was comprised of northern whites, businessmen, factory workers and African-Americans. Until FDR’s New Deal brought jobs during the Great Depression and Eleanor Roosevelt championed civil rights, most Blacks supported the Republican Party. From its inception, the Republican Party was pro-business and anti-government regulation, but it remained moderate on social issues even during the “Reagan revolution”—well, at least it was a “kinder and gentler” and more reasonable party. My, have things changed!

What has become of the Grand Old Party? Abe Lincoln is surely turning over and over in his grave. Back in Abe’s day, saving the union was a paramount concern. The Civil War was arguably more about the preservation of the Union than the emancipation of slaves. In contrast, today the Republican Party and its renegade faction (aka the tea party) care less about the union than it does its anti-President Barack Obama agenda. In the words of Charles Blow, the “tea party representatives have been sent to Washington with a singular mission: obstruct Obama.”

Another commentator noted that during a Republican town hall meeting, “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria received more kind words [than President Obama]” (Campbell Robertson, “Alabama Primary Puts a Wide Spectrum of Republican Views on Display,” The New York Times).

This past week, the Republican-controlled House decided that it would rather shut down the government and risk debt default than fund the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as Obamacare). Rather than availing itself of the constitutional process to amend or repeal the health care bill, the tea party faction chose to attach a measure to defund Obamacare to a continuing spending bill to fund the government operations. In other words, the House would finance continued government operations only if Obamacare was defunded.

Ironically, for a good portion of the 20th century, administrations tried without success to implement a universal health care measure. No one disputes the need for such legislation—not even the most ardent critics of the current legislation. To be sure, the present measure is less than perfect, but even a flawed measure represents a significant policy achievement. One suspects that, as does Blow, “the tea party faction is more afraid that Obamacare will succeed and become a clear legacy victory for President Obama than that it will fail.”

The tea party has been able to wield an inordinate amount of power. Traditionally, the speaker of the House provided leadership for the majority and pushed its legislative agenda. The speaker kept the party in line. However, John Boehner, the current speaker, seems to be led by the rank-and-file House Republicans—most of whom are newcomers from tea party districts. Boehner’s leadership is challenged at every turn. In the current battle, it was Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican from Georgia, who gathered enough supporters to force his party’s leadership to tie the spending bill for government operations to the defunding of Obamacare. Graves is just one of several tea party representatives who owes his House seat to gerrymandering—the manipulation of district boundaries to establish political advantage.