Death of Politics is Greatly Exaggerated

Michael Cohen argues that our system is broken because Republicans will no longer compromise.

Michael Cohen argues in a Politico piece headlined “The death of politics” that our system is broken because Republicans will no longer compromise.

What we have seen over the past few weeks is the continuing erosion of the notion that political compromise, the linchpin of our democratic system, is the key to effective legislating and policymaking. Hostage-taking has replaced deal making in Washington with potentially devastating consequences for the political system.

From a political and even policy perspective, Republicans have discovered that stamping their feet and saying no is a uniquely effective strategy. Traditional efforts to brook compromise have been shunted aside in the bare-knuckled pursuit of political goals, using weapons that at one point would have seemed unimaginable.

All this risks ending the need for legitimate political deal making. Just refuse to concede your position or threaten a policy outcome that would do catastrophic damage — and you stand a pretty good chance of eventually getting your way.

Despite being center-right to Michael’s center-left, we’re largely in agreement both as to the situation and the merits of the standoff over the debt ceiling. But we mostly disagree on his corollary argument:

Of course, while Republicans might be abusing the filibuster or using the debt-limit ceiling in ways it was clearly never intended, they are certainly not acting illegally or even outside the political rules. Rather they are just violating the customary rules that have long defined national politics.

The result is that America has one political party that seeks compromise and accommodation — and one that seeks to win, no matter what it takes. This is a recipe for continued and unending gridlock.

While “both sides do it” has become a tired cliche, it’s nonetheless true in this case. Yes, using the debt ceiling and the threat of economic calamity as a tool to gain political leverage was unprecedented. But so is everything the first time it’s done.

It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that we had a Republican president and Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress and bitching about Democrats using every procedural trick in the book to get in the way of enacting Republican policies.

Back in November 2004, Kevin Drum defended the Democrats using the “unprecedented” filibustering of Supreme Court nominees against Republican whining on the grounds that “hey’re doing it only because Republicans have relentlessly dismantled all the avenues of dissent they themselves took advantage of back when Democrats controlled the Senate. There’s no principle involved in this, just a raw exercise of power.”

I countered that,

One can certainly play the “well, they started it” game from either side. Republicans correctly point out that the Democrats used some rather sleazy tactics to derail the confirmation of Robert Bork, who all but the most ideological Democrats will acknowledge was superbly qualified. Democrats correctly counter that the Republicans have been just as bad, if not worse, when they’ve been in power.

At some point, the escalation has to stop and some level of comity restored. This strikes me as the perfect time. It’s not just because my guys are in power. The GOP has a huge majority of 55 seats to 44/45 for the Democrats (technically, Jim Jeffords is an “Independent” but he votes with the Democrats when it counts). Given that they’re likely to get their way on most issues anyway-and that as many as six Republicanswould probably join with the Democrats in the case of an incredibly controversial nominee-why not set in place rules that ensure that presidential nominees are accorded an up or down vote? Not only is it quite arguably what the Constitution demands but it’s a good rule. Indeed, the constant threat of a filibuster for any but the most lukewarm nominees strikes me as much more “nuclear” than this.

If the Democrats regain control of the Senate at some point in the future-and history says they will-then this will prevent the Republicans from using the filibuster, too. In the near term, at very little practical cost in political power, the Democrats help restore a more collegial working relationship in the Senate by bringing an end to a vicious cycle of retaliation that’s been ongoing for nearly two decades. It’s about time.

The so-called “nuclear option” was averted with a deal by the so-called “Gang of 12” and the reform was never made.

Republicans are in a stronger position now than Democrats were then, not only controlling the House of Representatives but in a smaller minority in the Senate. Additionally, they won back the House–the body Constitutionally charged with setting budget policy–in a landslide on a platform of drastic spending cuts to lower the budget deficit.

In a related exchange with Drum in January 2005, I added:

It’s not simply that the rules are archane and undemocratic but that both parties are using rules designed for extreme cases all the time. While I’m not a fan of the filibuster, it’s one thing to use it to oppose a radical new piece of legislation that will have a disparate impact on a Senator’s state or region and quite another use it as a routine matter.

So, half a dozen years ago–when the shoe was on the other foot–I was lamenting the same thing Cohen is now. And, incidentally, I’m still lamenting it even now that my side is doing the  same thing. But this is, alas, the new normal.

My solution then remains my solution now:

In sports, the best time to change rules is in the offseason, so that all parties have time to adjust and it’s not clear which team will benefit from the change. In politics, unfortunately, there are no offseasons. While I oppose changing rules that pertain to an election during a particular election cycle (let alone while the votes are being counted), there are few other bright lines. The closest thing the Senate has to an offseason is the beginning of a new two-year congressional cycle. That’s where we are now.

Ideally, then, we would reform the system by doing away with such things as the debt ceiling and certain uses of the filibuster and related tools of obstruction altogether with the changes not going into effect until January 20, 2013. With the outcome of the election very much in doubt, the reforms could be made without knowing who would benefit in the short term.

But that’s not going to happen. Instead, people will mostly rail against the use of “unprecedented” tools when their guys are in power and then adopt those and invent new ones when they’re in the minority.

While most of us have long since tired of the rancor in American politics, the fact of the matter is that the system is pretty much doing what it’s designed to do. There is very little consensus in the country on how to solve some really big problems and our game is rigged to prevent very big solutions from being imposed without widespread agreement.

In 2006 and 2008, the voters threw the Republicans out of power, frustrated with a collapsing economy and the leadership of George W. Bush and a profligate Congressional majority. In 2010, they gave Republicans back the House in frustration over Democrats overreading their mandate.

Come next November, the voters could throw Obama out and give Republicans control of the levers of power again. Alternatively, they could re-elect him and run the Tea Party folks out of Congress. Quite possibly, though, they’ll re-elect him and give Republicans the Senate, too, guaranteeing the continuation of the stalemate.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ponce says:

    If the Democrats in the Senate simply ignored Republican filibusters and just held votes on bills…could anyone do anything about it?

    The Supreme Court wouldn’t get involved in a rules squabble, would it?

  2. Rob Prather says:

    Come next November, the voters could throw Obama out and give Republicans control of the levers of power again. Alternatively, they could re-elect him and run the Tea Party folks out of Congress. Quite possibly, though, they’ll re-elect him and give Republicans the Senate, too, guaranteeing the continuation of the stalemate.

    James,

    This is what scares me. At this point, there is only one party that has a grasp of the trouble we’re in, and it’s not the Republicans. If we were in normal economic times, I would still think in many ways like a Republican. We’re not there.

  3. Rob Prather says:

    @ponce: SCOTUS probably wouldn’t get involved. Be careful what you wish for….

  4. hey norm says:

    Here’s a wild theory…Our politics are broken because we spend untold amounts of time and money dicking around with artificial crisis’ instead of dealing with real problems. Real problems like demand, and hence jobs.
    The Senate passed the Debt Ceiling Increase – which is arbitrary and nonsensical. More people will be unemployed because of the way the politics played out. That’s why our politics are broken.
    Politico and other outlets claiming to do journalism are more interested in “inside baseball” than what’s really going on. That’s why our politics are broken.

  5. Liberty60 says:

    I am not a big fan of the image that is being presented of our legislative bodies humming along smoothly in calm reasoned bipartisan fashion.
    In my view that is a signal that politics is truly broken; the Politburo never saw fights like this, but I wouldn’t hold that up as an example to be emulated.

    Politics is about making hard and painful choices, about large moral issues, and small petty interests.

    The idea that we can somehow resolve deep and fundamental disagreements about how our nation should be governed without rancor or anger is foolish.

    There is a current theory floating around that the Republican Party is embracing the soul of the Confederacy- Dennis at Balloon Juice has made that claim, and today Michael Lind at Salon does as well. This strikes me as about correct- what we are seeing is not a dry wonkish debate about abstract economic theory, but a deeply personal and cultural fight between factions.

    In my opinion, this is going to be a protracted struggle, and will get much more nasty before it is settled.

  6. ponce says:

    SCOTUS probably wouldn’t get involved. Be careful what you wish for….

    I wasn’t wishing for it.

    Just wondering if, in an emergency(say, Scalia dying), the Senate Democrats could legally ignore the Republican minority and pass a bill or nomination with a simple majority.

  7. hey norm says:

    @ Liberty60

    “…what we are seeing is not a dry wonkish debate about abstract economic theory, but a deeply personal and cultural fight…”

    I think that is because one group has embraced abstract economic theories, which have been thoroughly debunked, and taken them as gospel – which for them makes it deeply personal and cultural. These beliefs, which I repeat – have been thoroughly debunked, have become a catechism. To let them go and participate in a logical discussion based only upon fact would be like a gay person turning straight. Oh wait…they think that’s possible…never mind.

  8. Terrye says:

    I did not notice a lot of compromise back when the Democrats were shoving Obamacare down our collective throats.

  9. Liberty60 says:

    @hey norm: I agree, in that my personal theory is that the modern conservative movement has become an absolutist cult, like the late-stage Marxists.

    Traditional Republicanism (ca. Eisenhower) saw the market and government as occupying different but mutually rewarding spheres, the market driving dynamism and innovation, the government acting as a counterweight to avoid uncontrolled erratic swings.

    That was an essentially “conservative”, that is, cautious view of the world, that saw everything as needing an opposite balancing force.

    Modern conservatives see no need for an opposing balance to the market; Any observed flaws, say, the housing boom and crash, or the dot com crash is taken as evidence the mechanism was not pure enough, that the mechanism was not allowed to swing freely.

    Like Marxists, their theory is sort of a perpetual motion machine of poliltics, a perfect mechanism that is always right…on…the..horizon, and we must redouble our efforts to reach it.

  10. Davebo says:

    I did not notice a lot of compromise back when the Democrats were shoving Obamacare down our collective throats.

    Because you obviously weren’t paying attention at the time.

  11. Liberty60 says:

    @Terrye: Then you weren’t reading the frenzied tearful wailing of the liberal blogs, which bitterly complained about single payer being bargained away.

  12. hey norm says:

    C’mon Terrye…The ACA…what you call Obamacare…is a Republican program. How much more of a compromise do you want than enacting Republican legislation?

  13. Dean says:

    @Rob Prather:

    Rob,

    Just curious, at what point does the government say we have to cap our spending? And, not suggesting this would be your argument, but before anyone says Bush did it, you’re right. And I didn’t agree with it then either.

    Over at least the last five years we seem to constantly be on the cusp of a crisis in which the only hope is more government spending. At some point, we have to stop and get our spending under control.

  14. hey norm says:

    @ Liberty 60
    Agreed. That’s what I mean when I often type “so-called republicans”. The Conservative movement has become perverted by a simple-mindedness that is in search of – as you say – a purity that is just out of reach, but in fact cannot actually exist. To admit that it cannot exist would be anathema. To return to the topic – until they reclaim the roots of conservatism and reject this obsession with failed ideologies we are going to have a problem moving forward as a nation.

  15. Liberty60 says:

    @Dean:

    Over at least the last five ten years we seem to constantly be on the cusp of a [military] crisis in which the only hope is more government spending. At some point, we have to stop and get our spending under control.

    Agreed.
    So be it resolved that we end the foreign wars, and cut the Pentagon budget.

  16. sam says:

    @ponce:

    Just wondering if, in an emergency(say, Scalia dying), the Senate Democrats could legally ignore the Republican minority and pass a bill or nomination with a simple majority.

    Interesting question. Can the Senate majority violate one of its own rules with impunity. I think it could. I think, for instance, it could change, say, its rule against filibusters as it were “on the fly”.

    Article 1, section 5:

    Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings…

    But would it?

  17. An Interested Party says:

    I did not notice a lot of compromise back when the Democrats were shoving Obamacare down our collective throats.

    Even if your silly characterization was the truth, I also did not notice the Democrats threatening to derail the entire world economy unless they got what they wanted…now that the GOP has set the precedent, I expect people like you will be quite upset at some point in the future when the Democrats pull that or a similar stunt…

    Just curious, at what point does the government say we have to cap our spending?

    Equally of interest are the questions of at what point does it become acceptable to conservatives to raise taxes on the wealthy? What level of taxation would they consider “fair” for the wealthy to pay? 30%? 20%? 15%?

    But would it?

    The majority party that would contemplate doing that would probably be too terrified to go forward with such a change, as that change would deny them from having the same power when they ended up in the minority…

  18. Socrates says:

    “I did not notice a lot of compromise back when the Democrats were shoving Obamacare down our collective throats.”

    The Affordable Care Act was not shoved “down our collective throats”.

    During the 2008 election Mr. Obama and the Democrats promised health care reform.

    The Affordable Care Act was passed by majorities in both houses of Congress and signed by the President. At one point, it even garnered 60 votes in the Senate, a rare feat these days.

    And compromise? The Affordable Care Act is not what liberals would like; it IS a compromise. A significant compromise.

    It incorporates many conservative ideas about health care policy. Or, that is, they were conservative ideas, until they were part of the Democrat’s bill. Suddenly they were the death of freedom.

    Funny, that.

    But your assertion is bogus.

  19. Barry says:

    @Terrye: “I did not notice a lot of compromise back when the Democrats were shoving Obamacare down our collective throats. ”

    Lie. Obama and the Senate Dems spent months negotiating and conceding, only to have the GOP walk away. The Dem Senate then passed the bill. There was no more ‘shoveling down our collective throats’ than in any other bill.