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.