E.J. Dionne thinks Bush is a radical tyrant who has totally changed the rules of American politics. His evidence, shall we say, is a bit scanty.

The rules of policy-making that have applied since the end of World War II are now irrelevant. A narrow Republican majority will work its partisan will, no matter what. Democrats, at least until 2004, will have the grim satisfaction of being a relatively unified opposition that will suffer just enough defections to fail at the finish line.

Until now, Congress was a forcefully independent branch of government. Presidents as diverse as Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Clinton and even Reagan could not count on automatic support from members of their own party in the House and Senate.

Right. Which explains why Bush never has to compromise on anything; why Olympia Snowe always votes with her party; why every judge Bush has appointed has been confirmed; and why Dick Cheney has never had to break a tie.

With a very slim congressional majority, Bush would have been expected to seek genuine compromise — under the old rules. But Washington has become so partisan and Bush is so determined to push through a domestic program based almost entirely on tax cuts for the wealthy that a remarkably radical program is winning despite the odds against it and lukewarm public support.

This is a shock to congressional Democrats, most of whom came to political maturity under the old arrangements that placed a heavy emphasis on comity and the search for the political center. In all the years when progressive interest groups and foundations were attacking partisanship as a dismal force in politics, conservatives such as presidential adviser Karl Rove, antitax activist Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay and, yes, Newt Gingrich, were building a great Republican machine. The new tax bill is a monument to their success.

Yes, Bush is a maniac. Rather than trying to set himself up for reelection, he is hell-bent on passing programs that benefit only an infinitescimile portion of the population–and one that was going to vote for him anyway. And, yes, the Democrats in Congress have always placed nice-nice and have never, ever been even the teensy-weensiest bit partisan. No, sir. Just ask Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. When Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, they always made sure the Republicans were happy as clams. Why, most of the time, Republicans merrily went along with the centrist legislation put forth by Tip O’Neil and the gang, so pleased were they with the centrist nature of it.

But in holding together, said one Democratic senator, his colleagues were only responding to a dynamic Bush himself created. Unlike his predecessors, Bush has boldly tied his own fate to the fate of his party. Bush’s intense campaigning for Republicans in the 2002 elections convinced them to stand with him and convinced Democrats that Bush would oppose them no matter how they voted.

Combine this with unprecedented hardball against potential dissenters — “They go after their own almost as hard as they go after the Democrats,” said one influential Senate aide — and the result is near-lockstep party loyalty.

And because Democrats have such a diverse congressional party, the price they pay for unity is the blunting of differences. That means the party is often forced to deliver fuzzy messages.

He has a point here. I remember back in the Clinton days, when the policy called “triangulation” existed, when a Democrat president ran against his own party after the 1994 Republican sweep of the midterm elections, screwing over his congressional delegation whenever it served his reelection needs. We should go back to those halcycon days. And, indeed, the Republican party isn’t the slightest bit diverse. There is no difference whatsoever between Bill Frist, Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chaffee, Susan Collins, John McCain, and Rich Santorum.

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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.


  1. Nick says:

    Ah, the wonderful days of 1992. You remember that, don’t you? That was when a Democratic Party, drunk on the notion of “comity and the political center” refused to pass President Bush’s NAFTA bill, only to pass it the very next year when Clinton was president. What softball politics that was.

  2. Steven says:

    The more appropriate way to start the second paragraph of the second excerpt is:

    “This is a shock to congressional Democrats, most of whom came to political maturity under the old arrangements in which the Democrats were the unchallenged majority, and the Republican Party was too weak to force compromise.”

    Mr. Dionne needs to go back and look at how the House was run under Tip O’Neil, Wright and even Foley.

  3. KCat says:

    I can recall reading a Dionne article a couple of months ago that I thought made some sense, but now I can’t remember what it was about.

    Does anyone know how E.J. Dionne first managed to make contact with the alternate universe in which he appears to reside?

  4. James Joyner says:

    I dunno, KCat. What’s really bizarre is that he’s, in addition to his newspaper gigs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

  5. Rodney Dill says:

    What is even more ludicrous is that with a President, House, and Senate elected by the will of the people and voting more or less that same direction. (The Republicans seem more independent and less likely to follow their own party lines than the Democrats) The democrats are holding a strangle hold on law making through the threat of filibuster and no one, especially in the media, is confronting them with this.