Why did House Republicans display so much more ideological unanimity than Democrats? One reason is that the GOP’s sweeping losses in 2006 and 2008 reduced the party mostly to strong Republican seats in the past Congress, leaving few members with an ideological inclination or electoral incentive to cooperate with Obama. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says that the ambitious Democratic agenda also helped Republicans coalesce in opposition—in the political equivalent of Newton’s principle that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. “I remember when the stimulus package came up for a vote: There are 178 of us, we just got our clock cleaned, and the normal reaction was to make peace with the winner,” Cole says. “And, of course, every single Republican voted no. I remember at the time somebody telling me, because I’m a deputy whip, ‘You guys did such a great job whipping that.’ I said, ‘It really was not hard to whip.’ You can’t be a Republican and be for this. Our members didn’t feel agonized.”
But the results also reflect a longer-term dynamic: Although both parties are growing more ideologically homogenous, the trend is affecting Republicans more powerfully and more thoroughly. Democrats remain more of a coalition party than the GOP. The roots of that trend extend to the foundation of each party’s electoral base. The Republicans’ voting coalition is much more ideologically uniform than the Democrats’: About three-fourths of GOP voters identify as conservative, while only about two-fifths of Democrats consider themselves liberal, with the rest calling themselves moderate or conservative. That creates a more consistent set of expectations from the base for congressional Republicans than it does for Democrats, no matter what part of the country they represent.
Because about twice as many voters consider themselves conservatives as liberals, Republicans are typically less dependent on support from moderates to win elections, which further amplifies the conservative influence over the party’s elected officials. “The Democrats are always going to be fractious and divided if they want to aspire to majority status,” says Jacobson, the political scientist. “That’s just the nature of their coalition. The Republicans don’t have to be that broad; they can be much more unified. Republicans are now a conservative and very conservative coalition, and their share of moderates is minuscule. The pressure right now is not coming from their centrists; it’s coming from their extremists.”
The difference is already apparent in the early months of 2011. After last November’s landslide, House Republicans hold 61 districts that Obama carried in 2008, but those GOP members are not straying from the party agenda nearly as much as McCain-district Democrats did from their party’s priorities over the previous two years. Every House Republican has voted to repeal the Obama health care plan; all but two voted on February 18 to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions; and all but three (just one of them from a district that Obama won) supported last week’s continuing resolution on funding that imposed the largest domestic discretionary spending cuts in modern times. “The polarization around here, the formation of two homogenous parties at the poles, is really asymmetrical,” says Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a former political scientist. “The ideological cohesion and voting discipline represents a homogenization of the Republican Party that just hasn’t taken place to the same extent on the Democratic side.”
A PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM
At the broadest level, the trends in NJ’s vote ratings over the past three decades track the decline of individualism in Congress. Throughout congressional history, the most respected legislators—from Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas to Lyndon Johnson, Bob Dole, and Edward Kennedy—have been those who through force of personality or intellect have been able to assemble coalitions and forge compromises that would not have coalesced without them. Such personalized acts of consensus-building still occur but much less frequently, and those who try face much steeper walls of resistance to compromise. “You don’t have so much individualism [anymore],” says Weicker, now president of the Trust for America’s Health.
Primarily, legislators in both chambers (especially the House) are asked to simply be foot soldiers—to support policy choices that their leadership forges, almost always in close consultation with the constituency groups central to the party’s coalition. Rather than being heralded as iconoclasts, those legislators who deviate too often from that centrally directed consensus now face pressure from their colleagues; a cold shoulder from leadership; blistering criticism from the overtly partisan media aligned with each side; and, with growing frequency, primary challenges bankrolled by powerful party interest groups. “A lot of these institutions have become [ideologically] monolithic in their own right, and that just reinforces the political divide,” the Heritage Foundation’s Franc says. “If you are a charismatic senator or House member who wants to change an issue, you are going to be swimming not just against your own caucus but all of these outside interests and the blogosphere.”