The Way of the Hammer: Democrats Have Been Outraged by Tom DeLay's Tactics. but If They Take Back the House, the Lesson to Learn from Him Is This: Hyper-Partisanship Can Be Good for the Party of Government

Article excerpt

IT WAS A SUMMER OF ODD POLITICAL VALEDICTORIES. ON the night of August 8, Joe Lieberman bade farewell to his career as a Democratic senator, kicking off of his independent bid by blaming the "politics of partisan polarization" for doing him in. He asked citizens "fed up with the petty partisanship in Washington" to support his independent campaign.

Two months earlier, on June 7, another politician had offered a very different analysis of the current era. In his farewell speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, disgraced former Majority Leader Tom DeLay spoke of those same conditions of polarization and partisanship. "In preparing for today," DeLay said, "I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy. Well, I can't do that." What followed was an elaborate defense of political partisanship--"not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and strength." Those who take ideology and policy seriously, DeLay argued, welcome political combat. "[C]ompromise and bipartisanship are means, not ends," he said. "It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle."

Liberals have no love for DeLay. But honest ones reading that last, killer line--and thinking for a moment of the unctuous senator from Connecticut--should admit: This time, the Hammer nailed it.

If DeLay's political legacy--extreme when it adhered to actual conservative ideological tenets, merely corrupt and venal when it frequently veered away from them--is odious to liberals, his institutional legacy would seem nearly as lamentable. Over 12 years, Republicans have carried out a remarkable (if incomplete) transformation of Congress into a ruthlessly partisan legislating body, in which the minority party is shut out of the process as a rule, power is heavily concentrated in the party leadership, and deliberation, compromise, and basic civility are left on the scrap heap. The situation represents a stark deviation from the American norm--a tradition of weak parties, decentralized power sources, and procedural cumbersomeness. And it has elicited howls of outrage from both Democrats and from nonpartisan observers who came up through a very different era.

But liberals, as opposed to Democrats, have some reason to dissent from the outrage. There is a strong case to be made that the neoparliamentary thrust of the trends that Republicans have either initiated or accelerated offers opportunities that the party of activist government is better suited to exploit. The 20th-century era of towering committee barons, of coalitions and deal-making, of legislation slowed to a crawl through procedural impediments meant to foster "deliberation"--the arrangements whose disappearance Lieberman lamented--in fact offered a terrible institutional arrangement for the prospects of liberal reform. Conservative Republicans have reversed some of those arrangements in ways conducive to the prospects of liberal reform. This is not merely an irony to note. It's an opportunity to be seized.

WHINING ABOUT PARTISAN RANCOR IN WASHINGTON is a stale cliche, but like a lot of cliches, it's true: Partisanship actually is more severe now than it used to be. As political scientist Barbara Sinclair shows, the proportion of House votes in which a majority of Democrats voted against a majority of Republicans increased by half from the 1969-1980 period to 1990-2004; within that latter period, party cohesion on votes reached averages of about 90 percent. And between 1975 and 2004, the ideological distance between the two parties in the House (using the so-called Poole-Rosenthal measurement of ideology) expanded by nearly 50 percent. …