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Posted at 1:09 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

The benefits of party disunity

By Ezra Klein

Sen. John Cornyn's threat to leave Republican senators who vote against the earmark ban to the tender mercies of primary challengers is provoking spasms of yearning among liberals who envy that sort of party discipline. But should it? Consider this graph tracking the partisan composition of the Senate over the past 40 years:


Democrats have higher highs, and Republicans have lower lows. The difference is only a couple seats here and there -- Republicans top out at 55 seats in 2006, and Democrats at 61 seats in 1977 -- but in the United States Senate, a couple of seats really matters. It was the primary challenge that drove Arlen Specter from the Republican Party that was ultimately responsible for health-care reform. Without Specter's temporary membership in the Democratic Party, Reid wouldn't have had the 60 votes needed for passage. Similarly, Joe Lieberman, who Democrats let hang onto his seniority even after he endorsed the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, was also a crucial vote for the health-care bill, though he certainly extracted his pound of flesh along the way. To put it another way, party disunity is probably responsible for Democrats' most important achievement in generations.

Republicans suffered for their unity this year, too. If not for primaries in which the much more conservative, but much less electable, candidate took the nomination, Delaware, Colorado and Nevada would've flipped to the Republicans. That would've left the Senate with a 50-50 split -- and made it much likelier that, say, Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman walked across the aisle to hand control to the Republicans.

Party disunity isn't very emotionally satisfying. Quite the opposite, really. But it often works.

By Ezra Klein  | December 2, 2010; 1:09 PM ET
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>>but in the United States Senate, a couple of seats really matters>>

It's not size, it's what you do with it.

There is the perception that republican unity and political skill has led them to adopt more of their agenda than the democrats would have been able to with as many seats.

Posted by: fuse | December 2, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Let me get this straight:

Republican disunity (e.g., Specter voting for the stimulus) is good for Democrats.

Democratic disunity (e.g., Lieberman extracting his pound of flesh from the health care bill) is good for Republicans. (Imagine what the electoral landscape would look like if Dems passed the same health care reform bill but quickly, along party lines)

Explain to me again how disunity is good for a party?

Posted by: Tractarian | December 2, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

You're making an interesting point, Ezra, but your argument (and graph) implies a kind of mean ideological parity between the parties that doesn't exist. Both Republican and Democratic office-holders are a great deal further to the right than they were a generation ago, even if the American people haven't followed suit. (It's inconceivable, for instance, that a candidate for President today could win 49 out of 50 states in the electoral college, as Reagan did in '84.) Why our government is further to the right than our populace is a far more intriguing issue to ponder.

Posted by: scarlota | December 2, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Have you seen this post by Jack Balkin?:

His analysis meshes pretty nicely with your take on Senate dysfunction. This post makes me wonder how you'd take the rest of his argument.

Posted by: MattMilholland | December 2, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

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