Partisanship! It’s good for winning!

Generally, I’m loath to give the Bush administration credit for much of anything, but if there is one thing they got right, it’s in their approach to passing legislation.  President Bush and his advisers realized, correctly, that the partisan make-up of any given vote matters far less than what Beltway insiders normally think.  It doesn’t particularly matter if X piece of legislation has bipartisan support so much as it matters that X piece of legislation is popular.  The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson seems to get this, and makes a strong case for passing partisan legislation:

The rule among politicians in Washington used to be that when the provincials become restless, as they are now, the safest thing to do is run to the center. But as this sour and unsettled summer ends, the political center looks like the white line running down the middle of a busy street — a foolish place to stand and an excellent place to get run over. […]

It is a core belief of Washington’s political culture that policymaking by compromise — “meeting in the middle” — is the way to gain and keep the support of the vast, moderate, essentially reasonable group of voters who constitute a coherent political center. My problem with this analysis is that so many of the big decisions that have to be made are binary: yes or no. The terrain in the middle consists only of “maybe” or “kind of,” and I see no evidence that the country is in a “maybe” or “kind of” mood.

Of course, the obvious response is that Bush’s method of passing legislation resulted in Republicans losing both houses of Congress and the presidency.  But I’m not sure if that’s actually the case; Republican losses last year and in 2006 had far more to do with the party’s failed policies and its obstinate refusal to change course on Iraq than it did with institutional minutiae and partisan composition of floor votes.  One could easily imagine a scenario in which various pieces of conservative legislation were wildly successful, and voters rewarded the Republicans with continued control of Congress, even if that legislation was completely partisan.

Plainly put, the “center” does not lead the political conversation, the “poles” do.  It’s simply a fact that during the past twenty-plus years of conservative dominance, the “center” reflected the strength of the conservative movement.  Accordingly, if Democrats want to gain and keep the support “of the vast, moderate, essentially reasonable group of voters who constitute a coherent political center,” the answer isn’t to propose mealy-mouthed “centrist” policies and hope that voters understand the underlying differences between that and a more liberal proposal, instead, it’s to move full-on with the most effective legislation possible, which in health care at least, happens to be the most liberal form of the legislation.  After all, Democrats won’t be punished for partisanship, they’ll be punished for failure.

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12 thoughts on “Partisanship! It’s good for winning!

  1. I agree with what you say here J, but at the end of the day the Democratic Party isn’t a party. It’s (at least) 2 parties. Since the New Deal Coalition fell through, Democrats don’t have a unified platform or center pole around which everyone can tie. That’s why I think they rely so heavily on charismatic individuals (Clinton, Obama).

    The last coalition was obviously the Reganite one (fiscal cons, social cons, and neocons). That’s failed and now we’ve entered this weird phase where neither party can create a governing majority. The Democrats at this point should be that natural party, but their apparatus as a party is as a series of interest groups which when it comes to issues like health care end up clashing.

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      • Wow, this is a great question.

        Off the top of my head, I can think of:

        Blue-collar social conservatives who support the idea of the social safety net (Catholics who weren’t peeled off by the abortion debate… Jewish-Americans are the White-Collar version of this).

        Teachers/Policemen/Postal Workers/TSA Agents/Trial Lawyers/Etc…

        Minority Ethnic Groups that Republicans have gone out of their way to alienate (pretty much everybody except maybe Asian-Americans).

        One-bitten, Twice-Shy Green Party voters.

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      • That is a fantastic question.

        I think the Democrats split pretty nicely into two parties: the first is a broadly center-left party, based in New England and the West Coast, with a few seats here and there in the Rust Belt. And the second is simply a “Blue Dog” party of center-right Democrats from rural, Western and the occasional Southern area.

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      • Thank you both. I think you could both be right. Do you think libertarians would be able to find a home in either of them? Oddly enough I’d think that the leftward one might actually be more libertarian friendly than the centrist section since the centrists would be more socially conservative presumably and very friendly to unions and thus inclined to be unfriendly to anti union forces (like globalization).

        Another thought. If we became a 3 party system do you think this would assure republican dominance? Would the new center party become the natural ruling party? I don’t think the left wing party would have enough electoral beef to muster up majority margins. Or do you think we’d have diminished but still dominant Dems and Republicans with the new center party squeezed between them playing the role of courted power broker? Goodness, now that I think about it with 3 parties we’d have the possability of minority governments. What would the House and Senate look like then??

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        • There’s something I’m having a little bit of trouble with here. A few days ago, Jamelle, you posted a good, short post on the importance of passing good legislation.

          “As I’ve said many – many – times, congressional Democrats need to realize that their electoral fortunes are tied directly to passing good legislation. ”

          Then in this post after discussing the importance of popular legislation , you conclude with, “After all, Democrats won’t be punished for partisanship, they’ll be punished for failure.”

          Now for health care you assert that the liberal (presumably partisan) legislation is actually good legislation and thus will be popular, effective, and earn the Democrats electoral good will. Which is a neat and tidy solution to a problem. Without which, Dems would be facing either failure at the hands of no legislation or failure at the hands of unpopular bipartisan legislation. Lucky for them.

          However, following your logic, polls be damned, Democrats will face electoral punishment if they compromise or do nothing. So they should – to win electorally – double down on their own awesomeness and then the public will reward them. Which, to be honest, I would believe because the public likes a winner. Though, I don’t see how logically, that’s any different from what the Republicans were thinking circa 2003 and onward. That thinking, I would say, accounts for a big part of why the Republicans would enact/stick with/pursue failed policies in the first place.

          Sure there’s a chance that all Republican ideas ever are bad and destined to fail but it seems far more likely that when the only barometer for job performance Republicans cared about was whether or not they still had their job, they lost the ability to discern between voter unease and voter anger.

          So if that’s the case and Dems follow your advice, doesn’t that make them all the more likely to hit a legislative land mind in their carelessness and fail as spectacularly as the Republicans did?

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  2. I don’t think this health care plan would be a problem if Tip O’Neill were still running the House and there was the same or even smaller majority in the Senate. I’ve seen close hand much more interesting things pass. There seems to be absolute abhorance among the leadership of stepping on anybody’s feet when there are any number of thousands of ways to get the average congressperson or senator to vote the way that is wanted on such an important thing to this Administration’s agenda.

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