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The Parliamentary Challenge

Legislators face enveloping pressure to stand with their side on every major issue.

So much for narrowing the divide.

Whatever else happens, it's already clear that the struggle over health care reform has pulled the plug, at least for now, on President Obama's hope of defusing Washington's polarized partisanship.


It is possible that Obama is facing such resistance from congressional Republicans because his health plan represents a massive ideological overreach. But that explanation is difficult to square with the support for the plan's basic structure from such Republican-leaning groups as hospitals, drug manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, which fought almost all previous reform efforts. Obama told the AMA last summer that he is open to some medical-malpractice reform, a top Republican priority. And for months, he has signaled his willingness to retrench on creating a public competitor to private insurance companies, the idea that most enrages conservatives.

Even so, the plan has provoked grassroots fury on the right and fierce denunciation from congressional Republicans. Conservatives have recoiled from health care reform partly because they see it as the back-breaking straw on an Obama agenda aimed at expanding government on many fronts. But a bigger factor may be the changing nature of the political parties.

America is steadily moving away from the ramshackle coalitions that historically defined our parties and toward a quasi-parliamentary system that demands lockstep partisan loyalty. It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.


In this emerging parliamentary system, legislators face enveloping pressure to stand with their side against the other on every major issue. Tellingly, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee's protracted negotiations, both confronted whispers that they might lose their leadership positions if they conceded too much to the other side. Those threats were reinforced by warnings from Iowa conservatives that Grassley could face a 2010 primary challenge if he backed Baucus. Liberals are similarly threatening Democrats who are resisting reform.

Compounding the pressure has been the development of partisan communications networks -- led by liberal blogs and conservative talk radio -- that relentlessly incite each party's base against the other. Those constant fusillades help explain why presidents now face lopsided disapproval from the opposition party's voters more quickly than ever -- a trend that discourages that party's legislators from working with the White House.

Today, these centrifugal forces most affect the Republican Party. The Right has more leverage to discipline legislators because conservative voters constitute a larger share of the GOP coalition than liberals do of the Democratic Party. The Right's partisan communications network also remains more ferocious than the Left's.

The GOP's homogenization has been accelerated, moreover, by its losses in swing areas since 2006. Far fewer congressional Republicans than Democrats must worry most about moderate public opinion. Fully 31 of the 40 Republican senators, for example, were elected from the 18 ruby-red states that twice backed Bush and also opposed Obama. Just four Republican senators were elected by states that voted Democratic in at least two of the past three presidential elections. (Not coincidentally, those four include Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Obama's best GOP prospects on health care.) By contrast, 22 of the 59 Democratic senators were elected by states that voted Republican in at least two of the past three presidential elections. Legislators from such closely contested terrain instinctively prefer compromise to confrontation. Yet in a parliamentary world, confrontation is often unavoidable.


Party-line governing is intrinsically flawed. Any bill that must pass solely with votes from the majority party can't realistically incorporate ideas that divide the party. And that fact of life rules out half the tools in our policy toolbox. Though medical-malpractice reform would advance Obama's cost-control goals, for instance, it's impractical to include it in legislation that must pass solely with Democratic votes. Legislation is more balanced when both parties shape it.

But with Republicans operating as a parliamentary party of opposition, Democrats will have to pass health care reform virtually, if not entirely, alone. That leaves them with a binary choice: Democrats can either fragment into stalemate or function as a parliamentary majority party by unifying enough to advance their agenda. The choice would seem straightforward. If one side in a firefight is operating with military cohesion and the other devolves into ragged, undirected units, it's not hard to predict which will suffer more casualties.

This article appears in the September 12, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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