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More Partisanship: What We Need to Fix Congress

Stronger political parties would have avoided this week's shutdown

Drew Angerer/Getty

The shutdown of the federal government, we’re told, is a result of “partisanship” or even “hyperpartisanship,” as the centrist group No Labels puts it. It’s true that the divide over the Affordable Care Act and the strategy to force a government shutdown cuts exactly along party lines. It’s also true that the parties are now completely split, with none of the ideological overlap of even ten years ago, when some conservative Democrats were to the right of the most moderate Republicans, and vice versa. That makes elusive the kind of cross-partisan deal-making that seemed natural in the second half of the 20th century.

If the problem is “partisanship,” then wouldn’t the solution be “less partisanship,” as No Labels and others advocate? Politicians should put the interest of the country ahead of those of their own party, they intone, a worthy and evenhanded sentiment echoed by every editorial page in the country.

In fact, “partisanship” isn’t the cause of the shutdown. And we’d probably be better off if politicians—that is, Republicans—were thinking more about the interests of their own party. Consider that Republicans led themselves into the fever swamp of the shutdown even as many of its advocates said out loud that it would hurt the party, harm their election chances in 2014, and embarrass them, all without any possibility of achieving their objective of ending the Affordable Care Act.

Politicians motivated by the interests of a political party wouldn’t do this. Political parties in a winner-take-all electoral system are broad coalitions with an inherent interest in widening their scope to attract more people to their general vision. Their long-term goal is in winning elections, at many levels, now and in the future. So long as they are organized around a reasonably coherent philosophy (as the Democratic Party was not, when it was divided between Dixiecrats and northern liberals before the 1970s), parties are a stabilizing force in American politics, pulling it towards the median voter and offsetting the many other forces and interests that pull in other directions. The current Democratic Party, which trims and disciplines the aspirations of its core progressive activists, is a good example of a fairly strong party, which is why it’s consistently frustrating to the left.

But the modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who Businessweek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.

Consider the difference between House Speaker John Boehner and his shutdown forerunner, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was a partisan in the original sense, and the first truly partisan Speaker. Although a conservative, he always had strong support from moderate Republicans because he cared about their party’s strength above all else. Many House Republicans felt they owed him their political careers, thanks to early support from his GOPAC. Following his own shutdown debacle, he was able to lead his party into a period of effective bargaining with the Clinton White House that included the budget deal of 1997. Boehner has no such capacity to manage or discipline his caucus, and that’s not mainly a reflection of his personal failings. No one owes him or the party anything. Paul Ryan or Eric Cantor could do no better.

The role of Senator Ted Cruz, who prodded the embers of the House shutdown gang even while he couldn’t do anything meaningful in his own chamber, exemplifies the undisciplined, loose association that the Republican Party has become. Backed by ideological donors including the Koch brothers, he has no need for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and his presidential aspirations are better off without the support of the party establishment. Like his almost-colleague DeMint, Cruz will likely endorse primary challengers to incumbents of his own party, something that was once almost unheard of in either party. That’s the opposite of putting party first.

The way money works in politics certainly has something, though not everything, to do with this splintering. SuperPACs, political non-profits, and other outside spenders do more than just bring the corrupting influence of corporations and wealthy individuals into the process. They also destabilize and decenter the process, replacing the long-term interests of the party with those of individual donors. The Campaign Finance Institute reported yesterday that outside groups outspent political action committees for the first time in 2012. We’ve seen a massive shift in electoral politics away from parties, candidates and formal groups like PACs, and toward outside groups; it should be no surprise that we are now seeing a similar shift in the base of power in legislative politics.

Why would a party move to behave in ways that are in such conflict with its own long-term interest in expanding its base and winning elections? Consider this analogy: Traditional parties are like old-fashioned corporations, whose executives aim to build market share and long-term growth. But in the 1980s, armed with the doctrine that the goal of a corporation is to deliver returns to shareholders, a group of financiers swept in, and whether it was called a leveraged buyout, greenmail, or the more anodyne term private equity, they essentially extracted the value in the corporation for themselves and for other shareholders. As we saw with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital portfolio, some companies survived these raids but many were wiped out. Cruz, the Koches, Sheldon Adelson, DeMint, and even Paul Ryan should be seen as something like the corporate raiders of American politics. They are trying to extract maximum value from their current position in the system, with little regard to the long-term future of the Republican Party and its shrinking demographic base, or for the system in which it operates. That’s something very different from partisanship, and a little bit more partisanship, in the sense of a concern for the future of the party, might actually be the only cure for the current mania.