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A more partisan politics with more bipartisan results

Polarized America Page_1262118720454.jpeg

I don't think David Broder's "pox-on-both-their-houses" take on health-care reform sufficiently accounts for the abject groveling before the Gang of Six and the Republican abandonment of the Wyden-Bennett bill. But Broder is certainly not alone when he says, "What should have been a moment of proud accomplishment for the Senate, right up there with the passage of Social Security and the first civil rights bills, was instead a travesty of low-grade political theater -- angry rhetoric and backroom deals."

This hits something important, I think. But it's something that, for the foreseeable future, we're going to have to adjust to, rather than be continually disgusted by.

The bill that just passed the Senate was effectively the Massachusetts reform plan brought to national scale. It had more cost control, and more delivery-system reforms, but those were the main differences, and none of them were the controversial differences. All that might lead an observer to judge this a centrist success. After all, the Massachusetts plan was an incremental, public-private hybrid developed by Mitt Romney, a Republican governor who is now a credible Republican presidential candidate, and when it passed, Broder called it a "major policy success."

But its national successor passed with no Republican votes at the end of a horrifyingly bitter process. And Romney, now that he's a national Republican, has abandoned the reform plan he signed.

Conversely, Social Security and Medicare were simple government takeovers. Liberalism in its crudest, bluntest forms. But both of them enjoyed substantial Republican support. On the eve of the Senate vote on health-care reform, Mitch McConnell compared their bipartisan enactment favorably to the partisan process that had resulted in this year's much more moderate legislation. Indeed, even though most Republicans opposed both plans when they were initially proposed, few Republicans dare question their sanctity today.

We are less bipartisan in process even as we have become more bipartisan in substance. And that's not because Harry Reid is less of a sweetheart than Lyndon Johnson, or because FDR was so much more personable than Barack Obama. It's for all the boring political-science reasons: The post-civil-rights realignment of the parties along ideological lines, the increase in partisan polarization, the strengthening of the two parties. People are agreeing less which means they're compromising more.

Passing legislation through a partisan process is a perfectly fine way to pass legislation. It's certainly not obviously worse than passing legislation through a nominally bipartisan process that exists because conservative, racist southerners don't want to give up their committee chairs and so remain in the Democratic Party. But the danger is that we continually compare it to bipartisan memories of yore and decide to convince the American people that the sole avenue available for legislative progress is too ugly and seedy to support. Sacrificing the accomplishments we can have for the politics we can't have is not a good trade.

Moreover, was the legislative process every so shiny and decent and good? Ronald Reagan mused that "I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress." Mark Twain said, "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself." It's common to compare the legislative process to making sausage -- the point being that it's ugly and grimy and you'll like it better if you don't watch too closely.

There was a period running from about the Great Depression to the 1980s, during which Congress enjoyed an uncommonly high level of consensus. Congress has changed, though, and so, too, has the country. The graph atop this post shows that trajectory, at least within the Congress. It's depressing, but with some pretty modest changes, our system can adapt to it. The resulting accomplishments will be uglier even if, from the perspective of moderates, they'll actually be better. We're going to have to adapt to that, too. Otherwise, we're just going to top the rampant polarization that makes it so difficult to get anything done with an all-consuming cynicism that diminishes what little we actually manage to achieve.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 29, 2009; 4:22 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , Government , Senate  
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Comments

While it appears counter-intuitive, great leaders often abandon bad ideas from their own party once they win office. They may ride the wave of hyper-partisanship to get elected, but they take on their own party and partner with their political opponents to do big things for the nation. While that approach enrages their partisans, that seems to me what couragous leadership is all about.

I think there is one area of policy this year where President Obama has shown remarkable leadership this and that is on education by taking on the unions. President Bush also displayed great leadership on eduction by considering it a federal issue. These are two examples of presidents who were not captive to the wings of their respective parties and governed using the best ideas of both parties.

That is what should be happening on health care reform, social security reform, deficit reduction, and a number of other issues facing the country. Unfortunately, too many leaders are not willing to abandon their own party doctrines to get meaningful, bipartisan bills passed.

Posted by: lancediverson | December 29, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

More than comity or bipartisan kumbaya, I think what David Broder really wants is *high*-grade political theater. Me too. But the last elected official who could take over the floor and back rooms of the Senate and deliver such brilliance at will died in August.

Posted by: andrewlong | December 29, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Thomas Jefferson covered this mess well when he talked about what one must be willing to do when the Government no longer listens to the majority of it's citizens.
Our current system is broken and no longer functions in the manner it was intended to. We now have the best Congress Corporate $$$$ can buy. I wonder how long it will be before the average citizen gets fed up with this and reacts? I also wonder is the Corporations so naive as to presume that the middle class is going to continue to take beatings like this forever? If so they had best wise up, for they just might awake a sleeping giant and he is mad.

Posted by: raypc800 | December 29, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I liked this post, quite brilliant and genuine in the argument. Ezra is sensing 'right and high' stuff where his brain is exactly expected to pick up the core of David Broder's argument. This is needed because in no uncertain ways Ezra has raised the banner of 'contentious and partisan' parliamentary procedures by way of challenging filibuster over the prevailing obstructionism under the grab of consensual ways.

The lines which resonated most with me, not necessarily in any specific order, are:
- "Social Security and Medicare were simple government takeovers" (we have quite an extensive blog commenting on Megan's blog about the extent of Medicare's liberal ethos...)
- "Sacrificing the accomplishments we can have for the politics we can't have is not a good trade." (Way to go Ezra here, fully agreed and brilliant encapsulation.)

Thanks for such a revealing exposition here. Very forceful and lucid argumentation.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 29, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

If you assume that most politicians are self-serving jerks, you won't be disappointed when they live down to expectations.

Posted by: simpleton1 | December 29, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

The authors (Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal) of the referenced graph state "Some direct causes of polarization can be ruled out rather quickly. The consequences of 'one person, one vote' decisions and redistricting can be ruled out since the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, has polarized. The shift to a Republican South can be ruled out since the North has also polarized. Primary elections can be ruled out since polarization actually decreased once primaries became widespread. It is more difficult to find the causes of polarization than to reject them because social, economic, and political phenomena are mutually causal. [...] We also find that the polarization of the electorate has increasingly taken place along economic or class lines. Unlike the patterns of the 1950s and 1960s, upper income citizens are more likely to identify with and vote for Republicans than are lower income voters."

These authors then conclude that "For the period since the onset of renewed polarization, we find strong evidence that 'gridlock' has resulted in a LESS ACTIVIST FEDERAL GOVERNMENT." [emphasis added]

Posted by: rmgregory | December 29, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

This graph makes it obvious. All we need is a complete economic meltdown and a world war to get our Congress working together. Gosh! I love simple conclusions.

Posted by: bobsteph1234 | December 29, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

The New York Times reports that the Florida legislature, abetted by the Florida Medical Association and insurance lobbyists, will be considering ways to thwart health care reform. If they're at all successful, we can expect an exodus of the self-employed to friendlier states (except for those who don't want insurance. There's bound to be a few).

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | December 29, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

"People are agreeing less which means they're compromising more."

If by "people" you mean "Democrats" then I agree. Democrats are doing quite a bit of compromising amongst themselves. There has been no compromising whatsoever done by the Republican party. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Never, ever forget, Ezra, to put the blame for our partisan deadlock squarely where it belongs.

Posted by: joesantos | December 29, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

broder is always complains about partisanship

after all his years at WAPO you would think he would have learned that there is a two-party system in the US

the GOP has been following a "parliarmentary" party strategy since the days of "prime minister" gingrich

ask arlen specter and former rhode island gop senator chaffee

Posted by: jamesoneill | December 29, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Wow, Ezra, you really outdid yourself here. Do they hand out Pulitzers for blogs?Watch it, you don't want to peak in your 20s.

Posted by: Chris95 | December 29, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

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