The year 2009 was when the political-party system in the United States, sputtering for years, finally broke down and failed.
The Republican Party had controlled Congress since 1994 and the White House since 2000, but voters decided in 2006 and 2008, respectively, to replace Republicans with Democrats, who, among other things, campaigned on a sweeping overhaul of the nation's increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible healthcare system. As the president and the Congress set out to do just that, opinion polls showed broad support for reform in general and for the provision of a competitive government-run insurance plan specifically.
Voters didn't just endorse reform by giving Democrats control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government; they even gave the party a filibuster-proof majority (60 of 100) in the U.S. Senate, if you count the two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Even if Republicans opposed reform as a unified bloc, they wouldn't be able to defeat it if the Democrats were similarly unified.
Well, the Democrats weren't and the Republicans were. Infighting among the Democrats deflected attention away from the obstructionist Republicans and, coupled with a disciplined smear campaign by the opposition, eroded public support for reform. Republican unity allowed Sen. Joe Lieberman to exact revenge on the liberals who'd abandoned him in 2006 and Sen. Ben Nelson to extort special favors for his home state of Nebraska.
The result, if one were hoping for sweeping healthcare overhaul, was total and utter failure. If you wanted minor insurance-industry tweaks, then it was a rousing success. But the public clearly wanted something closer to the former, and despite the fact that a whopping 57 or 58 percent of Senators were willing to vote for more meaningful reform—which in any other political context would be considered a landslide—the public is not going to get it.
Bloggers and politicos have focused on the filibuster as the problem. To be sure, the filibuster is an antiquated, abused and undemocratic rule of the Senate. Its application increased among the minority Democrats during the Bush II years but exploded recently as a tool for post-Bush Republicans to kill legislation. We'd support any campaign to scrap the filibuster—there's simply no rationalizing the need for 60 votes to pass a bill—and we like the idea of waiting six or eight years before doing it so that no one knows which party will benefit first.
But in our view, the party system is a bigger problem. You cannot convince us that none of the 40 Senate Republicans, or, for that matter, only one among 177 House Republicans, genuinely support a healthcare system that includes a government insurance option to increase accessibility and stimulate price-reducing competition. While universal care has never been a top priority for the GOP, market competition for purposes of lowering prices always has been. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that a so-called “public option” would save consumers money, and while we're not suggesting that a majority of Republicans, free of political considerations, would risk life and limb in a mad scramble to get behind a government program, certainly some would see the value. It's not like the insurance industry is adored by a wide swath of the American people—Republicans in moderate districts could easily have sold such a modest reform proposal to their constituents.
This is why it's clear that the true reason Republicans are marching in lockstep is to gain congressional seats in 2010 and take the White House in 2012. Denying the Democrats any major policy successes on which to campaign is the best way to get 'er done. Obviously, moderate Republicans reasoned that they're better off getting in line than helping achieve a policy imperative—because it's a surer way to get that plum committee post or that badly needed campaign boost when party funds are doled out.
As Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote on Dec. 28, “Over the past two decades, the minority has learned that they profit in the next election when the majority is judged a failure. ... That's all well and good for interesting elections, but it means that no one can successfully govern the country.”
Party first, country second.
Just to torture ourselves, we like to imagine a country without political parties, where representatives vote either their conscience or whatever they believe to be their home district's preference and senators vote based on the true needs of the nation.
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