What Happens When Parties Move to Extremes

The moderate middle, which midwifed pragmatic policies, has been abandoned as politicians dig into ideological foxholes.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Dec. 22, 2016, 8 p.m.

Busi­ness, and in­deed the whole eco­nomy, ap­pre­ci­ate and prosper with sta­bil­ity and pre­dict­ab­il­ity. Wild pen­du­lum swings in policy, wheth­er from left to right or from right to left, are dis­rupt­ive, but they are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon. Re­pub­lic­ans had a free hand to do what they wanted in 2005 and 2006 when they had the White House as well as Sen­ate and House ma­jor­it­ies. The same was true for Demo­crats in 2009 and 2010.

Note that each party paid a price in midterm elec­tions after they gov­erned as they pleased. The ag­gress­ive use of ex­ec­ut­ive and reg­u­lat­ory powers in re­cent years means that even a party just hold­ing the White House can drive policy very strongly in its ideo­lo­gic­al dir­ec­tion. Rules pro­mul­gated by the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Na­tion­al Labor Re­la­tions Board are good ex­amples of that. Now we can ex­pect those policies to be re­versed, with the pen­du­lum swinging as far or fur­ther in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion.

This trend is be­com­ing more ad­vanced than in the past be­cause of two things that are hap­pen­ing sim­ul­tan­eously. First, our elec­tions are get­ting in­creas­ingly more par­lia­ment­ary in nature. Tick­et split­ting is get­ting rarer, with straight-party vot­ing be­com­ing the norm. Every Sen­ate race this year was won by the same party that car­ried that state in the pres­id­en­tial race. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures com­piled by Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port House Ed­it­or Dav­id Wasser­man, the House had a pat­tern that was fairly sim­il­ar. Only about 24 Re­pub­lic­ans will be sit­ting in dis­tricts car­ried by Hil­lary Clin­ton, only about 12 Demo­crats will be in Don­ald Trump dis­tricts, and only about 32 (7 per­cent) of House mem­bers won elec­tion by less than 10 per­cent (pres­id­en­tial res­ults by con­gres­sion­al dis­trict won’t be made fi­nal un­til early next year). This means that few House mem­bers have any real reelec­tion con­cerns as long as their dis­trict bound­ar­ies re­main the same. They can vote with their party as much as they want without fa­cing ser­i­ous chal­lenge from the op­pos­i­tion party.

The bal­last that kept each party from lurch­ing to one ex­treme or the oth­er is now al­most nonex­ist­ent. In the not-so-dis­tant past, mod­er­ate-to-con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats in Con­gress, of­ten from South­ern or rur­al areas or small towns, would bolt from their party on meas­ures per­ceived as too lib­er­al. In sim­il­ar fash­ion, mod­er­ate-to-lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans, of­ten from the North­east or from urb­an or close-in sub­urb­an dis­tricts, fre­quently sided with Demo­crats on is­sues seen as in­im­ic­al to their con­stitu­ents. In party primar­ies, the dy­nam­ic has changed as well. Can­did­ates can go to ideo­lo­gic­al ex­tremes without pay­ing a pen­alty at the polls be­cause of their polit­ic­ally mono­chro­mat­ic states and dis­tricts.

Both parties are more ideo­lo­gic­ally co­hes­ive than ever be­fore. Little holds Demo­crats back from mov­ing left or Re­pub­lic­ans from shift­ing to the right. The cen­ter of the Demo­crat­ic Party is mov­ing in­creas­ingly to the left, closer to Bernie Sanders or Eliza­beth War­ren than to Hil­lary Clin­ton or Joe Biden. It is un­likely that Demo­crats will nom­in­ate a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate as re­l­at­ively cent­rist as Clin­ton any­time soon.

Sim­ul­tan­eously, the Re­pub­lic­an Party is get­ting more and more con­ser­vat­ive. If the un­pre­dict­able Don­ald Trump had not won the GOP nom­in­a­tion, Ted Cruz al­most cer­tainly would have. More mod­er­ate con­tenders, in ret­ro­spect, nev­er had a chance. Both parties ex­per­i­enced a surge in pop­u­list feel­ing, as il­lus­trated by the suc­cess of Trump, War­ren, and Sanders.

Each party is con­vinced, not ne­ces­sar­ily wrongly, that their first pri­or­ity upon tak­ing power is to re­verse everything that was done on the oth­er side’s watch. Each party wants to push the en­vel­ope as far as they can while they’re in power. As­sume for a mo­ment that the Af­ford­able Care Act is largely re­pealed, and ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders and reg­u­la­tions are un­done: What will Demo­crats have to show for their years in the White House oth­er than los­ing ma­jor­it­ies in the Sen­ate and House, as well as a pas­sel of gov­ernor­ships and state le­gis­lat­ive seats across the coun­try? Would a more mod­er­ate ap­proach have had a bet­ter chance of cre­at­ing last­ing policy, per­haps without the polit­ic­al back­lash that seems to have oc­curred in 2010, 2014, and 2016? Will Pres­id­ent-elect Trump learn from the pain­ful ex­per­i­ence of the Demo­crats? Prob­ably not.

What we are see­ing is the end of bal­ance and ideo­lo­gic­al pre­dict­ab­il­ity. The day is gone when Demo­crats gen­er­ally pur­sued cen­ter-left policies and Re­pub­lic­ans pre­ferred cen­ter-right policies. Shifts in party con­trol cer­tainly brought changes in policy, but gen­er­ally not rad­ic­al changes. It’s un­likely that poll­sters in either party will be ad­vising their cli­ents who are fa­cing con­tested primar­ies to ad­voc­ate bal­anced, prag­mat­ic solu­tions.

We are go­ing through a markedly un­stable and volat­ile peri­od in our polit­ics and policy, with wild and of­ten ex­treme gyr­a­tions. This can’t be healthy for the coun­try, but it is the new polit­ic­al real­ity. Politi­cians fol­low their con­vic­tions as long as it means win­ning elec­tion.

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