In all of these ways, Congress functions as a more top-down, parliamentary-style institution—the results of which are evident in the relentless separation between the parties and the decline of mavericks in NJ’s vote ratings. Meanwhile, the results from the 2006, ’08, and ’10 elections suggest that congressional campaigns as well are operating in a parliamentary manner, in which assessments of individual candidates matter less than broad judgments about the two parties. Put another way, increasingly in congressional campaigns (especially for the House), it appears that the color on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back. That means members have less ability to separate themselves from attitudes about their party by voting against key elements of its agenda.
That trend screams from the latest House vote rankings. House Democrats who broke the most often from the party’s liberal consensus—the agenda that contributed to last November’s voter backlash—suffered by far the greatest losses in that election. Among the 81 most liberal House Democrats, just one who sought reelection was defeated (the Democrats lost the seat of one other who retired). By contrast, among the 98 Democrats with the most-moderate scores, 45 who sought reelection were defeated and the party lost the seats of 10 others who retired. Those legislators didn’t lose because they compiled more-conservative voting records, but neither was their distancing sufficient to save them from the tide that crested against their party in all but the safest Democratic districts.
“What you’re seeing now is, it’s harder to survive [a wave],” Price says. “The survival techniques that people adopted in these swing districts are less workable now. The elections become nationalized, and it’s a harder environment for members to deploy their usual survival tactics, like constituent service, and being nice people, and all the things members have counted on to protect them.”
The 2012 election will test how heavily these patterns extend into races for the Senate, where candidates typically have established more independence from general attitudes about their party, largely because they become better known than House members. Many of the Senate Democrats facing tough races next year compiled some of their party’s most conservative voting records—among them Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Tester. But the past three elections suggest that that may be thin insulation unless attitudes about the overall Democratic agenda and Obama improve in their right-leaning states. “One lesson … is you cannot localize elections like this,” says Matthew Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “You are a Democrat and an Obama Democrat … [and] you had better find a way of explaining what you did and putting in context what he did, because that is going to define you.”
One final question raised by the long-term trends in NJ’s vote ratings is whether a Congress attuned to these quasi-parliamentary legislative and electoral rhythms is more or less reflective of public opinion than the more fluid and unstructured institution of earlier generations. Bennett says that the polarization evident in the ratings has produced a Congress more divided than the country. “There’s been a lot of sorting out that has gone on the electorate, and there’s no question that districts and states are brighter hues of red and blue than they used to be,” he says. “But in aggregate, the plurality of the electorate is still moderate, and they are the most underrepresented category of voters at the moment.”
Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, disagrees. He believes that the hardening lines between the parties in Washington reflect a widening disagreement in the country over “fundamental first principles” revolving around the role of government. “Most of the Republicans I talk to, and my constituents, really believe that what’s at stake is, we are going to be a fundamentally different America on the other side of these [Obama] policies, and they feel it really strongly,” he says. “It’s not created by the system, not created by Washington politicians, but is a really profound debate that is beginning to emerge about what kind of country we are going to be.”
With all signs indicating that that debate will roar through Washington for the rest of Obama’s term, no one should expect the systematic separation of the parties that defines NJ’s latest vote ratings to reverse anytime soon. Pulling apart has settled in as a defining characteristic of political life in modern Washington.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the Feb. 26, 2011, edition of National Journal.