In the U.S. Senate, 'Independence' Is Overrated

On Tuesday, the contenders for the Senate in Virginia, incumbent Mark Warner and challenger Ed Gillespie, had a debate in which they apparently spent a good deal of time arguing over who would be the most independent. Gillespie charged that Warner just votes in lockstep with President Obama, while Warner charged that Gillespie is a partisan hack. But here's my question: Is independence really something we want in a senator? And even if it is, might it not rank way, way down the list of desirable qualities?

For the record, Mark Warner is one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate (his DW-NOMINATE scores put him as the 43rd most liberal senator in the 112th Congress and the 50th most liberal in the 111th). And it's safe to say that there is no one running for Senate anywhere in the country less likely to be independent of his party than Ed Gillespie, who has spent his career as a Republican operative and lobbyist.

But as a liberal, should I be horrified that Gillespie would be a reliable Republican vote? Not really. If he were more "independent," there might be the remote possibility that on some future issue he could defect to the Democrats. But that's a highly unusual occurrence, and not a particularly good criterion on which to base one's vote. Or think about it this way: Who does more favors for Democrats, a supposedly "independent" Republican like Susan Collins, who makes a lot of noises about bipartisanship but eventually votes with the rest of her GOP colleagues nearly all the time, or someone like Ted Cruz, who's such an extreme conservative (and such a natural troublemaker) that he regularly screws up the plans his party makes? When we call Collins, but not Cruz, an "independent," there's little question whose presence in the Senate is better for Democrats.

There are many brands of independence, of course. There's Cruz's right-wing trickster brand, then there's John McCain's preening, opportunistic brand (if you look back at the times McCain went against his party, you'll see that each and every time it was when his party was on the wrong side of public opinion). But you know what a partisan offers? Predictability. The implied argument of "I'm an independent" is "You never know what I might do!" In other words, even if you don't like what I stand for, vote for me on the off chance that at some point in the future I might change my mind and come over to your side.

It's natural to say that we want thoughtful legislators who exercise their own unique judgment instead of just blindly following what their party wants them to do. But the vast majority of the time, the parties have very good reasons for the positions they take. Those positions are the product of a certain set of values and priorities. If you want to make the right choice, the best way to go about it is probably to determine which party more closely represents your values and priorities, and vote for the people from that party. Trying to figure out which candidate is going to be more independent isn't going to get you very far.