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Are Democrats more disorganized than Republicans?


John Holbo proposes a thought experiment: Consider a country, he says, with two parties. One party enforces total party discipline. The other does not.

Over time, both parties will push positive proposals/legislation. Quite obviously, the Bipartisan Party will be at a tactical disadvantage, due to its lax discipline. Less obviously, it will have an ongoing optics problem. All the proposals of the Partisan Party will be bipartisan. That is, a few members of the other party will, predictably, peel off and cross the aisle to stands with the Partisans.

None of the proposals of the Bipartisan Party, on the other hand, will ever be bipartisan. No Partisan will ever support a Bipartisan measure. In fact, all proposals of the Bipartisan party will face bipartisan opposition – as a few Bipartisans trudge across the aisle (there are always a few!) to stand with the Partisans. Result: the Partisan party, thanks to its unremitting opposition to bipartisanship, will be able to present itself as the party of bipartisanship, and be able to critique the Bipartisan Party, with considerable force and conviction, as the hypocritically hyperpartisan party of pure partisanship.

I agree with Holbo's point (that minority partisanship makes even a well-meaning majority party look partisan), but not necessarily the implication. Left-of-center folks are pretty sure that Democrats are way worse at imposing party discipline than Republicans. But are they?

I don't really see the evidence. Democrats presented a united front against George W. Bush's Social Security privatization scheme in 2005. In fact, they did better than that: They managed to stop their members from promoting any compromise proposals, which ran counter to a lot of their impulses. They were nearly as effective against Bush's second round of tax cuts: Only Zell Miller and Ben Nelson crossed over to vote for them (and John McCain and Olympia Snowe voted against them).

Other Bush proposals, such as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, received more Democratic support. But those were functionally massive capitulations to progressive ideas. They weren't done the way Democrats would've liked, but they were akin to Barack Obama proposing a progressive tax cut or deficit-reducing Social Security reform plan that liberals could live with.

And speaking of Obama, Harry Reid accomplished what may be the most impressive act of party unity in recent history, convincing all 60 Senate Democrats to vote for Obama's health-care reform. So maybe there's something I'm missing here, but I think the prevailing sentiment that Democrats are disorganized is wrong. When push has come to shove in recent years, they've been extraordinarily unified. In between push and shove, of course, there's a lot of ambivalence and waffling from the moderates, but my hunch is that Republicans were no less frustrated by McCain and Snowe and Collins and Specter when they held power.

The glaring exceptions here are the 12 Democratic votes Bush got for his first tax cuts and the three Republican votes Obama got for his stimulus package. The tax cuts were more expensive, more ideological and less necessary than the stimulus. So there's good evidence that Republicans had the edge on party discipline, at least back then. Whether the polarizing lessons of the Bush years and the rise of a more hard-line progressive movement actually wiped that difference out remains to be seen, but what we can say is that there's been extraordinary Democratic unity in the Obama era, at least.

Photo credit: By Susan Biddle/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  March 29, 2010; 3:02 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , Democrats , Republicans  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: What happens when Congress can't do its job?
Next: Does the Affordable Care Act end health discrimination for kids before 2014?


I think you have to look at who is representing the swing districts. Basically the more "safe" seats a party has, the more unified the are. A Republican party that only controls the slave states and a few other legacy seats across the country is very unified, whereas a Democratic party that has a lot of seats in traditionally Republican places like Alaska, Idaho, and Nebraska is going to be less unified.
A real question is would you rather have 40 unified Senators or 60 that are harder to herd? I think everyone outside of the Duh-mint sphere would take the higher number.

Posted by: flounder2 | March 29, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

"George W. Bush's Social Security privatization scheme"

Ugh. Would you call HCR a takeover of 1/6th of the nation's economy? No, you wouldn't. Would you call HCR Healthcare Nationalization? Probably not. But you'll say that, which is just as inaccurate. It was SS Reform, with the potential for voluntary private accounts and the SS contributor owned, and could pass on. A terrible tragedy for the country if that had occurred, no doubt, but hardly "Social Security Privatization".

That being said, party organization involves a lot of things. Not the least of which: is your party in the Whitehouse, or not? Is your party in the majority, or not? And did we succeed at this or that, the last time out? And what do the polls say?

The Democrats have passed HCR and done recess appointments. Obama and the Democrats seem to be kicking backside and taking names just recently. Do they really seem that disorganized, right now? If you could just forget the HCR rebate up until two weeks ago, would the seem all that undisciplined?

And speaking of Bush's mild, unambitious (a little anti-hyperbole there) Social Security Reform, what sort of discipline did the Republicans show? The discipline to contradict themselves several weeks in a row, then run and hide?

I think discipline and organization are qualities we attribute to folks who seem to be getting what they want, and seem to be on message, over a certain period of time. But the Republicans were supposed to be fracturing, breaking up, and falling apart several times over the Bush administration, especially after the Harriet Myers nomination, and all during Immigration Reform.

Could be that it's just easier to seem organized when you're opposing than when you're advancing (or defending).

Plus, what kind of deals could any of the Republicans gotten if they had threatened to withhold their opposition? Nothing. But there was plenty certain Democrats could get, if they threatened to withhold their support. If there had been sufficient incentives for Republicans to break ranks, some of them probably would have.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 29, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"convincing all 60 Senate Democrats to vote for Obama's health-care reform"

Actually, Reid convinced all 60 to vote for *a* reform bill, which Obama then adopted. Obama never presented a health-care plan of his own to Congress.

And party discipline was so lacking among the Democrats that the Senate passed a bil that was highly different from the House bill, jeopardizing the whole process. Reconciliation was a near thing, and it came about not through some ideological confluence but from simple pork payoffs.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 29, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Additionally, one would assume that a party with 60 (or 59) seats in the senate would occupy a broader part of the political spectrum than a party with 40 (or 41) seats. At least as of the last couple of elections, Democrats have captured the moderate and liberal segments of the electorate, and have a moderate-liberal coalition in congress to represent this block. Conversely, as the Republicans try to recapture the nation's center, they will have to nominate centrists, which will make enforcing party discipline harder.

Posted by: Unwisdom | March 29, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

@KW: A terrible tragedy for the country if that had occurred, no doubt, but hardly "Social Security Privatization".

Not sure what you would call it then. The Bush plan would take a defined benefit system (current SS) and over time make it into a defined contribution system (401K style) where benefits are contingent on how the market does. The Bush proposal only privatized a portion of SS funds, but the direction of the "reform" was clear, all private accounts.

Seeing as how the current 401K style plan in company based insurance has made workers less secure in retirement, I don't see how taking apart the defined benefit SS system as a big plus for most workers. For the top 5% who have lots of cash to put toward retirement, it is probably a good idea. For the rest of us, not so much.

Posted by: srw3 | March 29, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

How unified were the Democrats on cramdown? How about card check? Hell, how about even the EFCA minus card check?

How about carbon cap-and-trade?

Posted by: rt42 | March 29, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

@KW: If there had been sufficient incentives for Republicans to break ranks, some of them probably would have.

Wow that is a jaded view of why senators vote. Whether the policy is good or bad is not as important as giving "incentives" to get senators to support a bill. Aren't they supposed to be voting for what would be best for the country? And what would this incentive look like to you? No public option? Insurance exchanges? Individual mandate? state based exchanges? Pilot malpractice reform efforts? I guess if dems had put some republican ideas in the bill, they might have gotten some republican support. Oh wait.....

Posted by: srw3 | March 29, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

@srw3: "The Bush plan would take a defined benefit system (current SS) and over time make it into a defined contribution system (401K style) where benefits are contingent on how the market does."

At most, that would be up to (up to being the key words as this was optional) 1/3 of benefits. And the accounts would have been modeled after the Thrift Savings plans already available to government employees . . . when workers turned 47 in the Bush plan, funds would have been automatically invested in a lifecycle fund that would not have been effected by market fluctuations. More to the point, one of investment options could have easily been government bonds. Or a portfolio of CDs of various banks. Or a combination of non-volatile, interest bearing assets. To call the option to invest up to 1/3rd of savings into private accounts "privatization" is simply inaccurate. Whatever else you think of the idea, it's not an accurate way to represent it.

". . . but the direction of the "reform" was clear, all private accounts."

Then it's equally fair to refer to HCR as a takeover of 1/6th of the economy? Because it's "clear" that that's the direction of this "reform"?

What's so bad about just calling things what they are?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 29, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I disagree Ezra.

First, it isn't just the votes, it is the messaging. The GOP all speak with the same voice. Heck, they use the exact same words in the exact same order. This was true when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress and it is still true. There are dozens of videos available showing the GOP doing this. The Dems try to do it, but can't.

Second, this is not a new development. See Will Turner's quote from 1935, "I'm not a member of an organized political party; I'm a Democrat." The Dems have never been unified. Heck, the problems HCR had getting passed were more the result of Democrats than Republicans. And if there is ONE issue that is considered the Holy Grail for Democrats it is health care.

Third, just because HCR passed does NOT mean that all of a sudden there has been, "Extraordinary Democratic unity in the Obama era." Just look at how hard it was for the Dems to pass HCR and then look at their majorities. If there were extraordinary unity it would not have taken over a year to pass it, it would have passed in August like Obama wanted.

Posted by: nisleib | March 29, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

@swr3: "Aren't they supposed to be voting for what would be best for the country?"

Heh. That's funny.

"And what would this incentive look like to you? No public option? Insurance exchanges? "

No, what I'm saying is that there was nothing Republicans *could* extort from their leadership, the way Nelson and Kandrieu. There might have been more defectors if they could have gotten a cornhusker kickback, while simultaneously knowing that all would be forgiven for their previous apostasy.

My argument is that there are more incentives for defectors in the majority party than there are in the minority opposition. A Republican could try and cut a deal, but at the expense of being torpedoed by party leadership, potentially the RNC, giving primary challengers ammunition . . . there aren't enough incentives. I don't believe for a moment that every Republican wants to paint HCR is some American-ending communist plot. But there are clearly few incentives, and numerous disincentives, for Olympia Snowe to buck the will of the party.

Thus, the party discipline of the Republicans is a temporary state of affairs.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 29, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

@nisleib: "This was true when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress and it is still true."

Except during Social Security Reform (yes, that's right, "Reform"), when all sorts of Republicans bolted. And during Immigration Reform, when there was plenty of disagreement from numerous Republicans. And Campaign Finance Reform, when Republicans were at odds with each other. And the Harriet Myers nomination. And there were some Republicans opposed to Medicare Part D, and No Child Left Behind. I know there was, at least, some opposition amongst the conservative pundit class on those issues.

I don't think they're always as together as you think they are. It just seems that way, because you're much more disappointed when you're party fails to unify than your are excited when the opposition party fails to unify.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 29, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Kevin - I'm not saying the Republicans are 100% together all the time, I'm just saying they are much better at sticking together than the Dems.

By the way, what do you notice about all those examples you gave. With the exception of Harriet Meyers and Social Security Privatization I'd say they were all Democrat/Liberal priorities, not Republican/Conservative priorities. HCR has been the Democrats big cause for almost a century and the Democrats had large majorities and it almost failed because of Democrats.

Now Harriet Meyers and Social Security Privatization failed because they were awful, terrible, really bad ideas that even Republicans couldn't justify. Social Security polled terribly and the very idea sent seniors into fits, that is NOT a demographic you want mad at you if you want to win at the ballot box. Harriet Meyers, oh goodness, do I even need to say it?

Part of this is structural. The Republicans in Congress have the ability to discipline their members in a way Democrats don't have. Why? Because the Republican party is more into structure than the Democrats. If the Democrats wanted to have the ability to discipline its members it could give itself those powers easily enough. But it hasn't.

Posted by: nisleib | March 29, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

> Other Bush proposals, such as No Child
> Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription
> Drug Benefit, received more Democratic
> support. But those were functionally
> massive capitulations to progressive
> ideas. They weren't done the way Democrats
> would've liked, but they were akin to
> Barack Obama proposing a progressive tax
> cut

Except that the final language of No Child Left Behind was drafted by the Republicans , and was very cleverly written such that in implementation it became the Destroy Public Schools in 10 Years Act. That the Democrats signed on to that was not particularly smart or disciplined on their part.


Posted by: sphealey | March 29, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

I'd argue that Democrats have less focused messaging and more or their intra party negotiation and dispute is done in public.

So regardless of the discipline shown in the final result, they appear less disciplined throughout the process.

Posted by: zosima | March 29, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

@KW, ad nauseam:

"What's so bad about just calling things what they are?"

How about calling them what their originators called them until the polling came back and they scrambled to rename them something more benign?

If ThinkProgress had written a paper called "How To Help Government Take Over 1/6 of the Economy" in 2005, then I'd think that particular attack would have some validity. But they didn't, so it doesn't. But Republicans, including Bush Admin personnel, *did* write about "Social Security Privatization", and so it's fair to call it that (as well as to point out their mendacity).

That you pretend otherwise makes me question your command of the facts, and tempts me to point out your mendacity.

Posted by: JRoth_ | March 29, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Meanwhile, to the merits of Ezra's post, I think rt42 probably makes the point best, but I also think it's instructive to remember what actually happened with the Social Security fight. Elected Dems were absolutely *desperate* to float plans, to hedge, to provide cover for Bush, and leadership was not particularly out front on the issue (IIRC certain leaders with Blue Dog tendencies made early mutterings in favor of offering a Dem plan). But there was massive grassroots pressure - largely led by Josh Marshall and Atrios - to prevent Dems from offering *any* message other than "hands off Social Security." Bush and Republicans tried to paint it as irresponsible, but it was that unity that held the line. And it simply wouldn't have happened if not for grassroots efforts.

I suppose you could characterize that as "party unity," but I don't think of discipline as something that arises from the populace (regardless of whether it should).

Posted by: JRoth_ | March 29, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Being able to manage discipline once a decade does not make you disciplined. If it were about diet, it would make you fat.

Posted by: pj_camp | March 30, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

So, do I read Ezra's article to imply that the Democrats are the "Bipartisans"? You know, the loving, feel-good, we-include-everybody-under-our-tent Democrats?

Ask yourself this, what's more likely to happen: 1)a pro-choice figure being given a primetime speaking slot at the GOP convention, or 2) a pro-life figure being given a primetime speaking slot at the Democrat convention?

Since #1 happens every GOP convention, and I challenge anyone to show that #2 has happened at any DNC in the past 10-12 years, I think it's safe to say that, once again, Ezra gets it wrong.

But then again, we have become accustomed to that, yes?

Posted by: dbw1 | March 30, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

dbw1, you are apparently a few decades behind the times:

Casey, an Abortion Opponent, Praises Obama

Sixteen years after his father was denied a speaking part at a Democratic convention because his anti-abortion views led him to oppose Bill Clinton’s candidacy, Senator Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania told the convention Tuesday night that Senator Barack Obama could bring together supporters and opponents of abortion rights...
But he also addressed the abortion question head on. “Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” Mr. Casey said. “But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect for the views of people who may disagree with him.”

Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a progressive group that opposes abortion, welcomed Mr. Casey’s appearance and his message.

“There was a time when the Democratic tent wasn’t big enough to include pro-life Catholics,” Mr. Korzen said in a statement. “Senator Casey’s speaking role is a clear signal that those days are over. We are hopeful that tonight’s address will begin to heal the deep divisions that exist in our country, and pave the way for common ground efforts to reduce abortion.”
NY Times August 27, 2008

Now who are the pro-choicers that address the GOP Convention every time?

Posted by: steveh46 | March 30, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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