As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

When Faced With A Parliament, Act Like A Parliament

Ron Brownstein has been unusually perceptive of late, but this isn't quite right.

America is steadily moving away from the ramshackle coalitions that historically defined our parties and toward a quasi-parliamentary system that demands lockstep partisan loyalty. It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.

Bush couldn't persuade many Republicans either. Republicans held the majority in 2005 when he tried to privatize Social Security, and they never even brought a bill through a committee. In this case, votes will be held on the floor of both houses on health care.

The truth is that one side acts like a Parliament while much of the other thinks we still live in the days of bipartisan consensus. Both parties have different visions of how to govern, and despite that giving Villagers the willies, it's OK and expected. But if you have one side bending over backwards to work together, and the other side unyielding, the debate necessarily tips in favor of that unyielding side, as a matter of basic physics.

Brownstein does acknowledge this to an extent:

Today, these centrifugal forces most affect the Republican Party. The Right has more leverage to discipline legislators because conservative voters constitute a larger share of the GOP coalition than liberals do of the Democratic Party. The Right's partisan communications network also remains more ferocious than the Left's.

The GOP's homogenization has been accelerated, moreover, by its losses in swing areas since 2006. Far fewer congressional Republicans than Democrats must worry most about moderate public opinion. Fully 31 of the 40 Republican senators, for example, were elected from the 18 ruby-red states that twice backed Bush and also opposed Obama. Just four Republican senators were elected by states that voted Democratic in at least two of the past three presidential elections. (Not coincidentally, those four include Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Obama's best GOP prospects on health care.) By contrast, 22 of the 59 Democratic senators were elected by states that voted Republican in at least two of the past three presidential elections.

But again, this is truly wrong:

Party-line governing is intrinsically flawed. Any bill that must pass solely with votes from the majority party can't realistically incorporate ideas that divide the party. And that fact of life rules out half the tools in our policy toolbox. Though medical-malpractice reform would advance Obama's cost-control goals, for instance, it's impractical to include it in legislation that must pass solely with Democratic votes. Legislation is more balanced when both parties shape it.

The entire Rube Goldberg formation of health care reform, the likes of which we see in all the Democratic bills, are fundamentally Republican ideas. They basically mirror a bill by Republican Senator John Chafee from 1994. The same on climate change and its market-based cap and trade formation. Democrats have very liberally borrowed from the bipartisan "policy toolbox," often to a fault. They haven't added ideas like privatizing everything (yet) or handing out cash to industry (only in part) or forcing poor people to live on cat food, but those are not what I would call the sharpest tools in the shed.

Because of the rump Southern faction taking over the GOP, and because of... well, people like Ron Brownstein, telling us that bipartisanship conquers all and hippies must be punched in the face repeatedly, the trajectory on all these issues has moved sharply to the right over the past few decades, such that a bill like Max Baucus', a virtual handout to the health industry (who love it), can be described on the right - and taken seriously by the media - as a government takeover of health care.

You need look no further to see how Democrats deal with these issues than Jeffrey Toobin's article in this week's New Yorker on the Obama Administration's judicial nominees:

The Obama Administration wanted to send a message with the President’s first nomination to a federal court. “There was a real conscious decision to use that first appointment to say, ‘This is a new way of doing things. This is a post-partisan choice,’ ” one White House official involved in the process told me. “Our strategy was to show that our judges could get Republican support.” So on March 17th President Obama nominated David Hamilton, the chief federal district-court judge in Indianapolis, to the Seventh Circuit court of appeals. Hamilton had been vetted with care. After fifteen years of service on the trial bench, he had won the highest rating from the American Bar Association; Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana and a leading Republican, was supportive; and Hamilton’s status as a nephew of Lee Hamilton, a well-respected former local congressman, gave him deep connections. The hope was that Hamilton’s appointment would begin a profound and rapid change in the confirmation process and in the federal judiciary itself [...]

But then, as the first White House official put it, “Hamilton blew up.” Conservatives seized on a 2005 case, in which Hamilton ruled to strike down the daily invocation at the Indiana legislature because its repeated references to Jesus Christ violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Hamilton had also ruled to invalidate a part of Indiana’s abortion law that required women to make two visits to a doctor before undergoing the procedure. In June, Hamilton was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a straight party-line vote, twelve to seven, but his nomination has not yet been brought to the Senate floor. Some Republicans have already vowed a filibuster. (Republican threats of extended debate on nominees can stop the Democratic majority from bringing any of them up for votes.)

“The reaction to Hamilton certainly has given people pause here,” the second White House official said. “If they are going to stop David Hamilton, then who won’t they stop?”

The answer, of course, is that they will try to stop everyone and everything, if only to gum up the works and force the majority to move more slowly on its priorities. The new Republican Party comes up from the mold of the college Republicans, taught early to use every dirty trick, every strategy, not to govern but to beat your opponent. They may have poisoned American politics and taken it completely away from the high-mindedness where Villagers like to think it has always been (it hasn't), but there's really only one way to deal with that. Brownstein concludes:

But with Republicans operating as a parliamentary party of opposition, Democrats will have to pass health care reform virtually, if not entirely, alone. That leaves them with a binary choice: Democrats can either fragment into stalemate or function as a parliamentary majority party by unifying enough to advance their agenda. The choice would seem straightforward. If one side in a firefight is operating with military cohesion and the other devolves into ragged, undirected units, it's not hard to predict which will suffer more casualties.

That's just an obvious sentiment, though from the looks of things, one with which Democrats have not yet reconciled themselves.

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