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The Party of No

March 23rd, 2010

One of the most striking features of the health care reform was that it was passed over the unanimous opposition of the Republican Party. This has all sorts of implications, not yet fully understood by anyone (certainly not me). To start with, it’s now clear that talk of bipartisanship, distinctions between moderate and hardline Republicans and so on, has ceased to have any meaning. If their failure to stop the health bill works against them, we may see occasional Republican votes for popular legislation that is going to get through in any case. Obama’s Employment Bill got only 6 Rep votes in the House, but passed the Senate 68-29 (or maybe 70-28) in what the NYT correctly called a rare bipartisan vote. At least the reporter on this piece, Carl Hulse, has caught up with reality, unlike the general run of Beltway pundits who still think that Obama should be pursuing bipartisanship.

In many countries, a party-line vote like this (at least on one side) would be nothing surprising. In Australia, for example, crossing the floor even once earns automatic expulsion from the Labor party and guarantees political death on the other side. But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.

One problem arising from this is that the US system is more vulnerable than most to the kinds of crises that arise when one party is determined to prevent the other from governing. Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous. The 1995 shutdown didn’t turn out too well for Newt Gingrich, but it doesn’t seem to have pushed him in the direction of moderation, and the current crop of Republicans make Newt look like a RINO.

A couple more thoughts.

The Republicans have become the Party of No in another sense. Having been the party of initiative since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, they are back to their more accustomed role as the party of reaction. The change can probably be dated back to the 2004 election, when Bush failed to privatize Social Security or maybe even in 2003 when electoral pressure pushed him into introducing the Prescription Drug Subsidy (a pork laden monster as you’d expect from Bush, but still an expansion of the welfare state).

The shift is certainly evident when you compare Obama’s first year in office with Clinton’s. Clinton was introducing policies demanded by the Republicans and their response (the Contract with America) was that he wasn’t doing nearly enough. Now, the Republicans have nothing of their own to offer, except more tax cuts (and, I guess, more torture). They are truly the Party of No.

Finally, a partial defense of Ezra Klein, who copped some flak from Glenn Greenwald for his suggestion that the uniformly negative Republican vote spelt an end to special interest votebuying. As Greenwald points out, this is false, and the big lobbies got to write large sections of Obama’s bill.

But, I think, Klein is right in observing that a particular kind of votebuying, what you might call ‘retail’, is on the way out. In a system with disciplined political parties, there’s not much point in buying individual members of Congress. Instead, interest groups have to work at the wholesale level, convincing party and factional leaders that their interests should be looked after. Unlike retail votebuying his is something of a zero-sum game, since whatever helps one party harms the other. Since politics is inevitably about competing interests to a large extent, interest groups are never going to go away. But there’s a case to made that it’s better tohave them work at the wholesale/party level, where the voters can hold the entire party to account.

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