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
March 29, 2010; 3:02 PM ET
Categories: Congress , Democrats , Republicans
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