The ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans are deeper now than at any time I can remember.
Everybody has their own political ideology, created from life experiences, family traditions, and personal beliefs. Although pollsters, journalists and academics like to group people into a few simple categories, the variety of such political belief systems is unlimited.
For that reason, political parties usually include a wide range of political positions. Although the job of party leaders in Congress is to convince every member to vote the same way on legislation, strictly party line votes are rare. When the House approved the North American Free Trade Act in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, about 40% of Democrats voted for it and 25% of Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, Democrats split right down the middle for and against. The voting was similarly split for the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000. Even the Senate vote to impeach Clinton showed the Republicans divided: one-sixth voted not to impeach.
Under President George W. Bush, there were many such divided votes. His signature education legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, attracted more Democratic than Republican votes in the House, where one-sixth of Republicans voted against it. Late in his presidency, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was written by a bipartisan group of Senators, but eventually failed because of a Republican filibuster. In the key cloture vote, about one-third of Democrats sided with two-thirds of Republicans to kill it.
Not all votes showed such crossing of the party lines. Clinton’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 passed Congress without a single Republican vote.
Since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the Republican Party has become more ideologically uniform. Obama’s first piece of legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009, allowing women to more easily sue for equal pay, passed the House with only 2 Republican votes. No House Republicans voted for the Stimulus Act in early 2009. In 2010, only 5 Republicans voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The most controversial piece of legislation under President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, received only one Republican vote in the House and one in the Senate, even though Massachusetts Republicans had supported a nearly identical bill when Mitt Romney was Governor.
The Democratic Party continues to include a wide variety of political positions on every possible issue.
Considerable pressure has been brought on Republicans at the federal level to make ideological promises which exclude political compromise. The most notable is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to raise taxes ever on anyone, promoted by Grover Norquist. As of May 2011, all but 7 Republican Representatives and 7 Republican Senators had signed on, as well as other leading Republicans, including Romney and Paul Ryan. When the many Republican primary candidates for President were asked during a debate in August 2011 whether they would accept a hypothetical legislative compromise that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts, they all said no.
The increasing ideological purity of the Republican Party at the national level has pushed moderates away. Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, one of the Tax Pledge non-signers, announced this year that she would not seek a fourth term. She cited the “dysfunction and political polarization” of the Senate, and in particular, “the overly rigid language on abortion in the GOP platform”. Another Republican non-signer, Rep. Richard Hanna from New York, complained about being “frustrated by how much we — I mean the Republican Party — are willing to give deferential treatment to our extremes”.
Republicans considered too likely to make compromises with Democrats have been challenged by more conservative candidates in primaries. John McCain, who had worked in bipartisan fashion more than most Republicans, survived such a challenge in 2010. Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana was defeated this year by Richard Mourdock.
Yet the ideological purity of the national Republican Party is not reflective of their own voters. Two polls in August showed that one-third of Republican voters believe the rich should pay more in taxes, and nearly one-third believe that abortion should be permitted beyond just cases of rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life.
The ideological purification of the Republican Party led Mitt Romney to reject his long moderate history on issues of abortion, climate change, health insurance, and taxes, in favor of ideological commitments to “severe conservatism”. Since his nomination, Romney has been veering back to the center.
But the problem for voters is not whether Romney is a flip-flopper, or whether he has any ideological commitments at all. With virtually all national Republican politicians rejecting any possibility of compromise on key issues, the gridlock in Congress, which has caused its approval rating to stay below 15% for the past year, will continue. Rigid adherence to ideology makes practical politics impossible.
What is practical politics? In a candidates’ debate for local office, I recently heard a Republican incumbent say that the biggest problem was insufficient revenue to accomplish what needed to be done. That was an honest, frank, and hopelessly non-ideological statement.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 23, 2012