Robinson: Why party affiliations still matter in US
The race for a Senate seat between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren raises the issue of how much a candidate’s party affiliation matters. All summer, Brown, the Republican, ran advertisements featuring prominent Democratic politicians proclaiming they were tired of partisan bickering in Washington, that Brown was a regular guy who took good ideas wherever they came from, that we need more leaders who were not slaves to partisanship. Brown genially declared that he approved these messages.
So do many Americans. Brown taps into widely shared sentiments when he encourages voters to forget party affiliation in deciding between himself and Warren. Partisanship has a bad reputation. Loyalty to a party leads some people to support bad ideas and inferior candidates. Parties have been engines of corruption. Many Americans say they would rather make up their minds based on the merits of the candidates, not party affiliation.
Before we accept this line of reasoning, however, we need to consider the role parties play in our system of governance.
Citizens of a constitutional democracy have two fundamental concerns: whether our government can act effectively to meet the challenges of these dangerous times (think deficit and debt, national defense and health care, including managing the cost of these essential activities, climate change, education, etc.) and whether the government is accountable to the will of the people. Though the Constitution never mentions them, American political development has shown that parties are central to meeting both of these challenges.
It is generally understood that our national government is not adequately meeting the challenges of life in the early 21st century. Virtually no one disagrees with this assessment. We also agree that Congress has become dysfunctional.
And what causes Congress to be so dysfunctional? Partly it is due to the calendar of staggered elections, which virtually guarantees that midterm elections will result in increased Congressional resistance to the president. In addition, congressional rules, particularly the filibuster in the Senate, require huge majorities to pass anything, from legislation to the confirmation of nominations. These conditions have blocked efforts to reduce the deficit, curb the cost of health care, address climate change — even fix the postal system. Until a party presents a platform for coming to grips with this agenda, we will continue to evade our responsibilities and risk plunging this planet, our island home, into catastrophe.
As for the second question (keeping the government responsive to the will of the people), parties are essential too. Woodrow Wilson used to say he could not encourage the enactment of policies to his own liking by voting for any individual, no, not even if he voted for himself. No individual, not even the president, can govern this country alone. It takes a team to govern effectively.
This is the context in which we must judge Brown’s boast about being a lone wolf politically. Viewed superficially, his voting record seems to bear him out. A study by the non-partisan Congressional Weekly in 2011 showed that Brown voted with the majority of Republicans just 54 percent of the time, making him the second-most bipartisan senator. (Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, voted with a majority of Republicans 48 percent of the time.) On the other hand, as Warren showed in the recent debate, some of Brown’s votes, especially on taxes, were clearly to the right in the current highly polarized environment.
Whatever we make of this record, the most concerning vote Brown would cast going forward would be his vote for majority leader of the Senate. If you want Mitch McConnell elevated from minority to majority leader, vote for Scott Brown. And because the vote for majority leader determines the organization of Senate committees, a vote for McConnell supports Charles Grassley instead of Pat Leahy as chair of the judiciary committee (in charge of vetting judicial nominees, including but not limited to those for the Supreme Court); James Inhofe, a die-hard global warming denier, instead of Barbara Boxer, as chair of the committee on the environment; Jim DeMint of South Carolina, instead of Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, in charge of legislation affecting commerce, science and transportation; John McCain to replace Carl Levin as chair of armed services; and DeMint, not Boxer, to lead the subcommittee on international organizations, human rights and global women’s issues. The majority party appoints most of the staff on most committees.
In other words, a great deal is at stake when parties organize Congress. And whatever else Brown or Warren do over the next six years, you can be sure that they will vote with their parties on this crucial item.
Thus, control of the Senate will be one of the most important things to watch Nov. 6. Thirty-three seats in the Senate will be at stake. According to the analysis of the New York Times, 17 of those 33 are solid or leaning Democratic; nine are solid or leaning Republican. If those predictions hold up, the Democrats would have a 47-46 advantage. The remaining seven seats are rated toss-ups: four (Missouri, Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin) are held by Democrats; three (Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts) by Republicans. The race for control of the Senate could come down to the result in Massachusetts. For this reason alone, the partisan affiliation of the candidates is critically important.
Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.