The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Republicans operate as if in a parliamentary system

and Democrats don’t.

As someone who lives in a parliamentary democracy (Canada) that’s what I’ve noticed.

The fundamental rule of parliamentary democratic politics if you are the opposition party is this:

Whatever the ruling party does is wrong

Why?  Because if the ruling parties policies work and make people happy, healthy and wealthier, then they will be re-elected.  If they are a complete disaster, the opposition will win.  If some don’t work, you need to be able to run against them, and it’s difficult to do that when you supported them.

The archetypal US example of this is John Kerry in 2004.  The Iraq war is already unpopular, but Kerry can’t credibly run against it because he voted for it.

This calculus is something that Republicans understand, and that Democrats don’t.

Never give an enemy an even break…

As Dave observed today, many Democrats still think they are living in the past, when gentlemen and ladies could reach across the aisle, find agreement, and do what is right for the country.

The Republicans don’t live in that world, and from an electoral politics point of view it’s not clear they aren’t right not to.  Incumbent parties defeat themselves by failing to rule adequately.  If you don’t believe that you weren’t paying attention to the last 8 years.  The Democrats didn’t defeat the Republicans, they defeated themselves by their complete inability to put through effective policy or to govern effectively day to day (an inability revealed starkly in both Katrina and Iraq).  Democrats walked into the void.

You can walk in faster if you opposed the failed policies (again, see Kerry, 2004) but eventually screwing up governance will tank a party.

Now in parliamentary systems a majority government just does what it likes, and the opposition reflexively opposes but can’t stop anything.  In a minority government, the opposition can’t just stop everything because if it defeats the government on the wrong vote it’ll cause an election and you don’t want one of those till you’re sure you’ll win and the governing party won’t get a majority.  So the government can still get through a fair bit of its agenda, even if it doesn’t have a parliamentary majority.

In the US there’s no threat of a snap election, and the opposition can often hold up significant legislation, especially in a case like the current one where the governing party has unreliable members (something that’s very rare in most parliamentary systems).

So the Republicans have taken parliamentary opposition one step further.  Instead of just opposing everything but letting it pass, then running against it, they figure why not oppose everything in the hopes of weakening policy to the point where it doesn’t work?  The stimulus bill was compromised to the point where it didn’t do the necessary job.  The global warming bill likewise, and the health care bill appears headed for the same fate.

Lousy policy leads to lousy outcomes. Lousy outcomes make the population unhappy, and less likely to vote the incumbents back in.

What the Republicans are doing makes perfect sense from an electoral point of view.  Voters are not going to primarily blame Republicans for Democrats failing to govern effectively.

This is something that many Democrats, especially older ones who came from a more genteel era, or those who some sort of strange genetic disposition to compromise (Obama) don’t seem to get.  But Republicans get it in their limbic system.  They believe that your enemy is your enemy and that you never give your enemy an inch.  When you’re on top, you give them the boot, when you’re down, you knaw at their ankles till they bleed out and fall.

Comity and compromise only work with people who believe in them. Contrary to the moronic statement “it takes two to fight”, it actually takes two to make peace.  When one person wants to fight, and one won’t fight, what happens may not be fighting, but it certainly isn’t peace.


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  1. Formerly T-Bear

    The Democrats lost the run of themselves when they, in a fit of politically jejune pique, overturned the established order and curtailed party seniority and the party discipline that sustained seniority. Tip O’Neill had warned of consequences and was subsequently the last Speaker to wield national power from the Democrats, his like will never be seen again.

    Since, the Democrats have been hobbled by leadership best described by the lowest common denominator rather than led by excellence, the current House and Senate leadership is exemplar of the quality. The Republicans, not abandoning party discipline, have proceeded to goose step their way through history, party discipline the envy of the Third Reich, not even the appearance of sanity will politically deter their agenda.

    “All the king’s horses, all the king’s men, will not put (the Democratic party) together again”

    Ref: John A. Farrell’s “Tip O’Neill, and the Democratic Century” ISBN 0-316-26049-5

  2. senecal

    There’s probably a reason — a psycho-socio-demographic one — why the parties have different personalities in their leadership. The Republican stereotype of the Dems may be right — they represent the technocratic, college-educated, symbol-manipulating elite. Opposed to them, the Republicans represent the red-blooded, hard-pressed and hard-working, traditional American — of the John Wayne school. Gentility is expected of the one, and two-fisted straight talk of the other.

    However, at the very top, at the funders’ level, we are not talking about people, but corporations, trans-national financial entities, abstract forces. They are the same for both parties.

    And from the philosophic critic’s viewpoint, I like the comment of my friend at Stop Me Before I Vote Again:

    “Their (the two parties’) miserable supporting claques and cliques never individuated. They draw what little civic identity they have from the melodramas and temper tantrums of their representatives.” (Al Schuman)

  3. Ed

    I think the problem is that the Democrats just aren’t a left wing party and people keep expecting them to do left wing things. Its reasonable to support them because the Republicans have been drifting perilously close to fascism, but if I’m right on this assessment the US political system is in terrible trouble to the point where I’m not sure it can be fixed.

    Before the Great Depression, neither party fit on the left-right spectrum, but the Democrats could best be described as the party of local elites. It was the party of the southern elites and the big city political machines. The Republicans were a somewhat populist party. The Republicans were viewed more as the natural home for progressives.

    By a historical accident, we had Democratic administrations that had to deal with the Great Depression (after the administration of the progressive Republican Hoover failed), World War II, and civil rights issues, and they responded fairly well and constructed what elements there are of a American welfare state. The government moved in a left wing direction, and this moved the Democrats left, not the other way around. Support from unions and African-Americans, which benefited from the Democratic administrations and Congresses between 1933 and 1969 (Democratic administrations for all but eight years of this period, Congresses for all but four years), became more critical for Democratic politicians and that was pushed to the left.

    The Republicans, as the more populist party, became more vulnerable to being identified by the backlash to civil rights and being taken over by the darker corners of the American psyches.

    However, there are still substantial numbers of Democratic Congressmen and Senators who essentially represent local interests and have no real ideology, though at least the real right-wingers have left the party (there was a Democratic Congressman who was a member of the John Birch society as recently as the 1980s. Phil Gramm started his career as a Democratic congressmen). Democratic administrations will basically implement reforms when absolutely forced to.

    As a recent Harper’s magazine article pointed out, unfortunately Obama is much more like Hoover than FDR. Hoover was arguably the public figure in 1929 with the best background for dealing with the Depression, and we probably benefitted from having him in the White House at the time than Al Smith, who would have been horrible. His problem was that he was not opportunistic enough, FDR’s great virtue is that he was really willing to try anything. The congressional leaders in 1933 also understood the importance of moving fast. Its notable how much we’ve been treading water as a contrast.

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