There seem to be civil wars taking place within both of the major American parties. At least, that is how internal disputes among republicans, and among democrats, are portrayed in the media -- as bitter tiffs between political pragmatists and stubbornly intransigent (or else 'principled') idealists of either the far-right or far-left.
Certainly, you do hear some left-leaning democrats accusing President Obama of betraying his promises and beliefs, by accepting anything less than the full suite of liberal health care recommendations, or by continuing to put troops in the Middle-East. Meanwhile, the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck crashes down upon any GOP office holder who so much as utters the word "compromise."
So, have we embarked on an era of ever-more bilious partisanship? Is dogmatism on both left and right all that remains of the once-vaunted American gift for dialogue, courtesy, reciprocal-learning and practical problem solving? Certainly, one can be excused for picturing this trend -- sometimes called "culture war" -- as a pell-mell rush toward one inevitable conclusion. The violent and hate-drenched third phase of our ongoing American Civil War.
Each Party Has Its Own Style
But first, let's talk about the republicans, among whom the popular diagnosis really does appear to be on target. No one can deny that influence within the GOP is measured by a person's fierce adherence to doctrine. And to bitter, uncompromising, partisan wrath.
The results of a poll conducted by "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair magazine and issued Sunday (November 29, 2009) show that, by a wide margin, Americans consider Rush Limbaugh -- who openly prays for the current administration to fail, even at achieving any good for the nation -- to be the nation's most influential conservative voice. The radio host was picked by 26 percent of those who responded, followed by Fox News Channel's equally vociferous Glenn Beck at 11 percent. Top politicians -- former Vice President Dick Cheney and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- were the choice of 10 percent each, neither of them particularly well-known for concession-trading with folks on the other side of the spectrum, or being amenable to agreeable bargaining.
As for those GOP members who now hold actual office, few even figured as blips on the influence poll. But stalwart partisanship applies to them as well. Reciting the same talking point phrases -- sometimes within minutes of their issuance over Fox -- these men and women seem content to be interchangeable, seldom making any effort to be distinguishable, in a political sense, from one-another. When it comes to the republican denizens of the U.S. Capitol, the current style of GOP partisan uniformity has had an odd effect -- of rendering them into doctrinal clones who matter only en masse, never as individuals.
Stunning Party Discipline
Sure, the 40 republicans in the Senate and 200 or so GOP representatives in the House appear to be there. They inhale and exhale, make speeches and intone "present" during roll calls. But to what effect? To a man, they have submitted themselves, almost 100%, to absolute party discipline.
Let's make this situation plain; on the republican side, there is no bargaining, dickering, haggling, persuading, pleading-to-conscience, intercession, arbitration, or mediation -- nor efforts to find common ground of any kind with the majority party, representing more than half of America. They do not seek to come up with incremental steps toward creating new laws, amending old ones or allocating tax dollars These "delegates" do not serve their constituents or the districts. They are party men, first and last.
Now lest we simply shrug and accept this as normal, let's recall that American legislators used to be among the least party disciplined in the world, notoriously willing to negotiate as individuals. Traditionally, the way things used to get done was that you might seek the least-unpalatable portions of the wish-list of the opposing side, and grudgingly let some of those smelly-but-acceptable measures come into being, in exchange for getting some progress on matters that you consider to be really important. It is the "sausage" approach to making law... perhaps inelegant, even ugly, but it's democracy and we did okay with it.
But that sort of behavior is now impossible, at least among republicans. Even one deviation from party line perfection may be punished, volcanically, on radio and in the blogosphere. Everything is now purely black vs white. Good vs evil. A complete matter of "sides," with no permissible shades of gray.
History Lesson: How Has This Played Out?
Now, you might imagine that this trait would have differing effects, depending upon whether the party is in the majority, controlling Congress, or in the minority. Let's see if that was the case. Take the brief era of 1993-94, when -- for a short time -- newly elected President Bill Clinton also had slim democratic majorities in both chambers. As economic pundit Russ Daggatt put it:
The 1993 Budget Act, which was designed to eliminate the record budget deficits inherited by Clinton From Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, included an overall increase in taxes and extended the pay-as-you-go budget rules. It passed without a single Republican vote in Congress by the closest possible margin – by one vote in the House and with Vice President Gore breaking a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Republicans predicted that the economy would collapse as a result. (Like all predictions based on Supply Side theory -- that one failed diametrically to come true.) Instead, it produced record budget surpluses and the strongest economy in a generation. But the Democrats paid a price, as they were crushed in the 1994 elections and lost control of Congress. Unfortunately, the lesson that was learned in Congress was that fiscal responsibility doesn’t pay politically."
In fact, polls showed that it was not the 1993 tax bill, but Hillary Clinton's overly complex attempted Health Care legislation, that helped propel the 1994 rout. Nevertheless, Daggatt's point is taken. While in the minority, in 93-94, the GOP showed impressive discipline and utter devotion to partisanship, just like today.
One might have expected the Party of No to change its tune, after it gained control of both houses of Congress, in late '94. After all, Newt Gingrich led that "revolution" with a full agenda of clearly stated goals.
Indeed, it is instructive to recall the one time that Gingrich actally negotiated with Bill Clinton in good faith. Out of that narrow moment of adult-style bargaining, we got the Welfare Reform Bill, which was without any doubt one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in the last forty years, correcting hundreds of abuses and inefficiencies, effectively getting millions off of the state dole and into job training... followed by real employment. Despite dire predictions by both radicals of left and right, this pragmatic piece of goal-oriented legislation achieved real progress, proof of which is seen in the simple fact that nobody mentions welfare anymore.
Alas, though, Gingich got so much grief from his partisan-dogmatic wing, for even speaking to Clinton, that this kind of thing never happened again. Indeed, apart from a relentless flurry of brinksmanship confrontations with the President (which Clinton always won), republicans on Capitol Hill settled in for the laziest, do-nothing stretch in the history of the Legislative Branch.
Until democrats wrested back control in 2006, the Senate and House spent fewer days in session and considered fewer bills than any comparable period in the last 100 years. Except for seeking the ever-elusive "smoking gun," to prove that the Clintonites were corrupt, they held almost no investigative hearings. Even bills that might have pushed the conservative agenda languished and were seldom even reported out of committee.
During the long era from 1995 through 2009 -- and especially 2001-7, when they controlled every branch of government -- there were only three general ways in which the Republican Party consistently used its sweeping power to change conditions in the United States of America. (1) They passed bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected. (2) They then passed more bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected. And (3) they yet again gathered the energy and will to pass bills that cut taxes and granted special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.
Beyond that, despite having the best-disciplined and most potent lock on government since the democrats' Do-Everything Year of 1965... and despite the nation facing major problems, plus a tsunami of outright corruption... the GOP consensus seemed to be to Do-Nothing.
Never Really Happy in the Majority
My private impression? Fellows like Tom Delay, John Boehner and James Imhofe never seemed all that happy when they were in the majority. For one thing, they had to face nagging questions from sincere conservative citizens, demanding: "Well? We sent you to Washington, and now you have complete power. So legislate!"
They couldn't even blame the darned democrats, since that party almost never practiced lockstep-obstructionism. Here, again, is Russ Daggatt:
'During the George W. Bush years, his tax cuts and Medicare Part D passed the Senate with less than 60 votes. which meant there was no problem with any democratic fillibuster.' In fact, Medicare Part D was -- "the largest increase in entitlement spending since the creation of Medicare in the 1960 s with a ten-year cost of almost a trillion dollars. At least when LBJ created Medicare he also enacted taxes to pay for it. Bush and Congressional Republicans never even discussed any means of paying for their budget-busting initiatives. To pull that off, they had to let the pay-as-you-go budget rules lapse."
The point here is that from Nixon to Ford, from Reagan to both Bushes, there was always some way to get democratic votes, when they were needed. Always some who were willing to horse-trade... as when the mega tax cuts of 2001 and 2002 passed without any serious threat of a democratic fillibuster. In that case, one small concession got enough democrats to go along. That was an expiration date on the tax cuts. The GOP simply assumed that, by 2010, every supply-side dream would have come true and they would thereupon be so popular that they could make the cuts permanent, before they expired.
(Alas, at risk of repeating, every major Supply Side forecast in history has been disproved. It is pure voodoo, and our children are deep in debt, as a result. But let's move on.)
The crucial point is that, when the GOP was in power, the opposition Democratic Party nearly always let things come down to an open, majority vote. And that had a real downside to GOP leaders like Boehner and Delay. For it meant they never had a very good excuse to offer conservative constituents, for their near-total inaction on any part of the official GOP agenda... except, of course, doing favors for the rich.
Happier to be in the minority again
Ever since the GOP became the minority party in both houses, the republican senators and representatives now seem -- in fact -- much more cheerful! Not only is it easier and more emotionally satisfying to be outraged outsiders, but this has meant that their existence, in either chamber, is simply a matter of standing up, whenever the party whip calls, shouting "Nay!" when ordered to, then perhaps staging an irate public statement before going off for an early weekend.
And yet, whether they are in power, or in the role of Loyal(?) Opposition, one thing stands out as consistent -- republican grumpiness and refusal to negotiate. This uniformity is far more than simply a function of being in the minority.
It is a character trait.
Are The Democrats The Same?
In a word, no.
All right, I'll add a sentence or two. Popular American humorist Will Rogers used to say "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a democrat."
Everyone knows that the very words "Democratic party discipline" constitute an oxymoron. Any democratic representative has his or her own, weird internal concoction of ideology and pragmatism, local interests and global passions. If republicans are dogmatically uniform, disciplined and lockstep dedicated to both complaining and to doing nothing...
...then democrats are scattered across the political horizon, flighty, distractible... and each of them frenetically determined to save the world. (And yes, that can have its scary aspects, too.)
That is where the real difference between the parties lies -- in the small but vital matter of personality. And it explains why we have embarked on one of the weirdest epochs in American political and legislative history.
The Result: A Completely New Approach to Legislation in the USA
So what does this mean for the Republic, right now? It means that all actual negotiation over legislation -- such as finance/banking reform or healthcare or passing a military budget, must take place within the Democratic majority caucus... and that caucus must somehow achieve unanimity, before a bill even goes to the floor of either house. Because, given the predictability of lockstep GOP opposition, only with a completely united democratic caucus can there be any chance of passing any bills, at all.
But we've already seen that democrats don't march well together. If republicans click their heels and obey Rush, then democrats are more like a herd of cats. This means that unanimity must be achieved the hard, old fashioned way. Through persuasion and negotiation, one legislator at a time.
It means that the Democratic caucus in each house is the locus of deliberation in today's United States. That is where men and women who are charged with the nation's business do the actual arguing, criticizing, tradeoff-balancing and incremental modification, by which legislation improves (we hope) enough to become law. It is there that Santa Monica liberals must debate semi-conservative "Blue Dogs" -- sometimes late into the night and across weekends -- struggling to find common ground, combining (we hope) good ideas from the moderate left and the moderate right, shambling, bleary-eyed, toward a consensus that everybody can live with. That is, everybody who has chosen to participate in negotiation.
No wonder things get so excruciating! We have sixty senators - with sixty fractious and varied viewpoints - who must come to complete consensus (with some murkiness regarding Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe) in order to get by a Republican filibuster that is now seen as automatic, reflexive, inevitable, and impervious to any effort to placate, mollify or apply reason. In fact, the GOP senators might as well just go fishing, under the new quasi-Constitutional tenet -- "when the dems are unanimous, it passes. If not, it doesn't."
Things are similar in the House, only with a teensy amount more slack.
Is that it? All that blather, just to point out the weirdly obvious?
Well, yes, it's what I'm routinely paid for.
Nevertheless, we now see that the civil wars within the two parties are very different phenomena. In the GOP, it amounts to the systematic purging of any hint of heresy from central dogma. Among democrats, today's tiffs between liberals and "blue dogs" constitute something that Americans have almost forgotten the name of -- "deliberation."
Does this grate on liberals? That blue dog semi-conservatives have extra leverage these days, because legislation must be passed unanimously? (In the real legislature: the Democratic Caucus.)
Sure it does! The lesson?? Live with it. Learn to accept incremental change. Better yet, recognize that the sane version of conservatism, that the blue dogs represent, does have important and useful things to say. Moreover, that part of America deserves to be heard. Especially since the main "conservative" party is lost, down boulevards of delusional catechism that Barry Goldwater denounced as quite mad, before he died.
Indeed, the top liberal agenda right now should be to help more Blue Dogs win in contested districts! Recruit decent, progressive, if sometimes a bit too-crewcut ex-military men and women to run against the loony culture warriors, everywhere possible. Help the GOP to continue along in a long, self-chosen path, marginalizing itself into the New Know Nothings, and thus finally put the once-great party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower out of its terminal illness.
And, if the predictable result is to eventually split the Democratic Party in two? Into a Liberal party (mostly free of loony lefties) and a Decent-Moderate Conservative/Libertarian Party (free of monstrously crazy neocons)? Well, it may surprise you to learn that this exact thing happened before, earlier in the life of the republic.
What? You cannot see that as possibly the best of all possible worlds for the nation of Washington and Franklin? A nation that desperately needs to rediscover the grace and power and effectiveness that arises from the adult practice of reason.