Parliament Lament

Suppose that you wanted to find a list of the 30 or 40 Republican members of Congress most vulnerable to defeat this fall (and assume that you couldn't afford the Cook Political Report). Here's an easy trick: Take a particularly egregious piece of legislation passed by the House, then look at the Republicans who voted against it.

For example, last year the House passed Congressman Richard Pombo's bill to “modernize” (repeal) the Endangered Species Act. Thirty-four Republicans voted no. That list is virtually identical to any list of Northeast, Midwest, and Rocky Mountain Republican incumbents considered vulnerable this year.

If there is a voter backlash against the GOP this November, it will be aimed at the far-right Republicans who've been running the party. But, like a quail-hunting Dick Cheney, it will instead take out an unintended target -- the so-called “moderate” Republicans who are somewhat pro-environment, more or less pro-choice, and sometimes labor-friendly leftovers of the genteel GOP tradition. Generally speaking, these are the only Republicans in vulnerable districts.

Shed no tears for the Republican moderates. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a Prospect-sponsored breakfast in May, they are “enablers” of the culture of corruption. But the disappearance of Republicans who were willing to deviate occasionally from right-wing orthodoxy will mark a major change in our political life and culture. Back in 1994, many conservative Democrats were wiped out in the election and the party switching that followed. This year, whether Democrats win enough seats to control the House or not, the second shoe will drop. The hardening of our country into a parliamentary democracy, with two parties representing distinct ideologies and political traditions, will be complete.

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Is this a bad thing? polarized partisanship makes it hard to get things done, unless one party controls everything, as in a real parliament. Or could it be a good thing? In 1950, political scientists issued a plea for American parties to become just like this -- ideologically coherent and “responsible,” modeled on the British parliamentary parties. The answer doesn't matter; this is the way it's going to be. It may turn out that the political framework of the 20th century -- in which conservative and moderate factions in each of the two parties overlapped, and shifting bipartisan coalitions were always the way things got done -- was the anomaly, a living fossil dating from the peculiar history of the post–Reconstruction South.

Anomalous or not, that framework is exactly what almost everyone in Washington was trained for. We were all brought up knowing that the first thing you must do to pass legislation is to build a solid bipartisan coalition. But soon, whether we choose partisanship or not, we will all be absorbed into a more partisan world, and those who fight that trend will be left behind.

It has become an article of faith on Democratic blogs such as DailyKos that progressive interest groups betray their own causes by sometimes endorsing Republicans. The Sierra Club and NARAL endorsements of Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee have been particular points of controversy. But it's not that NARAL and the Sierra Club are idiots. Up to now, it made perfect sense for them to endorse Chafee. You reward your friends, especially when they have stood up to pressure from within their own party. But at a certain point, rewarding friendly Republicans crosses the line into desperately trying to prop up a few so that you can still seem bipartisan -- at the price of legitimating a majority whose highest priority after tax cuts is the evisceration of environmental regulation. Making things even more complicated is the fact that most of these issue advocacy groups operate under tax rules that require them to be nonpartisan, get their support from funders who are skittish about partisanship, and usually have one or two Republicans (of the genteel variety) on their boards. Adjusting to a parliamentary world won't be easy.

One of the arguments of the 1950 political scientists was for this very result, to reduce the influence of “the pressure groups,” because ideas would move through the parties rather than through external, unaccountable groups. But the political framework of the late 20th century had a lot going for it. In theory if not always in practice, it could find consensus and more stable solutions to public problems. But it's going, and in its place we will have a more rigid system in which the parties themselves dominate. The conservatives probably figured this out first and embraced it, thus explaining much of their political success in the last decade. Liberals can lament the loss of the old pluralist world, but we had better move on and deal with the new.

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