Single Party Government Is a Good Idea -- This Time

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • M.S. Bellows, Jr. Writer, lawyer, mediator, proprietor of Thersites and other offenses.

As Election Day nears and McCain's chances of electoral success fade, the McCain campaign has started using a clever and deceptive argument with voters: that it's dangerous to have single-party rule in Washington, headed by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

That's a deceptive argument, because it ignores the fact that it was single-party government -- Republican control of the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for six of the last eight years, and Republican control of two of the three branches for the past decade and a half -- that have caused almost all the problems the nation now faces. Even with Democratic control of the political branches, we still won't have single-party rule, because Republicans still comprise seven of the nine Supreme Court justices, and the Court's "conservatives," despite their protestations, are astoundingly activist, "legislating from the bench" every chance they get. And, of course, permanent single-party government -- like the Communists had in Russia, and the Nazis had in Germany -- was the stated goal of the Republican Party's chief electoral strategist, Karl Rove, until he was forced away from the corridors of power.

But McCain's "cross-vote, please" argument is still clever, for two reasons. First, it can flex to accommodate voters' inclinations while still helping both McCain and downballot Republicans who are bemoaning his abysmally short coattails: voters who want to prevent single-party rule can choose to vote R at the top of the ticket and D for Congress, or vice versa. Either way it adds votes to the R column that otherwise might go straight-ticket D. Second, it taps into the widespread, and wise, American suspicion of centralized power, a populist cynicism that may be the very last vestige in American popular thought of the Founding Fathers' healthy fear of lords and kings.

The "split ballot" school of thought says voters should cross-vote the Presidential and Congressional elections -- that when there's Democratic President there should be a Republican Congress and vice versa. In ordinary times that can make sense, because even a progressive like me believes that some degree of ideological tension -- hopefully collaborative in practice, but tense nonetheless -- can be a healthy brake on wild ideas. The power exerted by what the British call "the loyal opposition" can serve as a reality check on any majority's wilder flights of fancy, as Bill Clinton, as least part of the time, checked Newt Gingrich's Congress' "Contract On With America.

But we're living in an exceptional time that proves the rule. Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst possible form of government -- except for all the rest. What he meant was that the checks and balances and inefficiencies of democratic governments can hamstring both bad ideas and good ones. The best government of all, however, is one that can take decisive action on good ideas -- and sometimes, a nation faces a future so dire that it cannot afford to hamstring itself.

Today -- with our nation engaged in two wars, unable to deal with natural (let alone terroristic) crises at home, ten times deeper in debt than we were when the "fiscally conservative" Ronald Reagan took office and twice as deep as we were just eight years ago, and on the brink of a credit collapse and big-D Depression; with our nation's schools overcrowded, our industrial base sold for scrap, our scientific and research communities falling behind those of other nations for lack of government incubation, and our economy paying three times as much per capita for healthcare as our competitor nations are paying; with global warming accelerating and our reliance on foreign oil still expanding and species dying and weather worsening -- with our nation at the tipping points in so many diverse yet overlapping areas, with such tremendous opportunities and such terrible hazards confronting us, we cannot afford to be inefficient. Right now, we must be positioned to enact bold ideas boldly.

That's not undemocratic. In two years, and again in four, we will have chances to reconsider most of our leaders. But until then, our nation's ability to move nimbly and powerfully and well may determine whether the 21st will be another American Century, or the end of America's century-long state of grace.

Put differently: there are a lot of fires right now. Our government is like a fire truck that must get around as quickly as possible if it wants to put them all out before they turn into a citywide conflagration. Cross-party voting is a way of intentionally hobbling our government -- which, right now, is akin to disabling a couple of cylinders on the truck, so that it can't drive so quickly -- or having two drivers, each intent on putting out a different fire first. It won't work.

Here's the right formula: one driver, fast truck, save city.

During the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt fought back a divided government, managed to get both the Congress and the Court on his side, and wound up creating a more just society -- and saving the world from fascism. We need that kind of unity again.

For proof that hobbled government sometimes does more harm than good, we need look no further than how the G.O.P. used the filibuster earlier this year to stop a bill that could have helped prevent the housing crisis:

The filibuster, like cross-party voting, is another way of checking excessive government power -- a check that the Founders wanted in place most of the time, but also understood should be overridden at times like this. It allows the minority party in the Senate to block legislation that the majority wants, unless the majority can muster 60 votes to override it.

The filibuster should be used sparingly, but ever since Democrats won a slim majority two years ago, Senate Republicans have quietly filibustered over fifty pieces of legislation, shutting down every significant Democratic intiative (and then, with remarkable chutzpah, have campaigned this year by calling the Democrats "do-nothings").

How's that "intentional hobbling" worked out for us? Not well.

For instance, last February, before the foreclosure crisis became front-page, bankers-jumping-out-windows news, Senate Republicans blocked efforts to give bankruptcy courts more power to stave off home foreclosures, a move Harry Reid called "a big mistake":

"The people on Wall Street are high-fiving. They just won again," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said after the vote.

"The big banks just won again. The mortgage bankers won again. Oh, there are a few losers out there, like millions of consumers -- millions of people who are going into foreclosure or are about to go into foreclosure. They lost."

The banking industry and President Bush opposed the bill, which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce a filer's mortgage debt to the home's current market value.

Bush's GOP allies filibustered the measure Thursday afternoon, invoking Senate rules to require 60 votes to cut off debate and bring it to the floor; Democrats came 12 votes short of that mark.

In hindsight, of course, it seems obvious that allowing bankruptcy courts to help struggling homeowners readjust their mortgages to levels that allow them to keep current on payments but still protect the lenders (called "cramming down" or reducing the loan's value to reflect the home's real market value, which is the only security the lender has anyway) could have helped thousands of families stay in their homes, might have saved taxpayers from having to spend $700 billion on a bailout that may not work anyway, and could have kept the economy away from possible collapse into depression.

It was a good idea, and Democrats tried to take it before foreclosures reached critical mass -- but it was stopped by the Republicans in Congress, who used a "hobbled government is healthy government" tool, under the radar, to keep it from even getting a floor vote.

I care less about the partisanship that killed the "cramdown" legislation than I do about the lesson it teaches about the downside of political inefficiency. Yes, the Republican blockade was mind-numbingly partisan. Reinstating a tool that bankruptcy courts possessed for decades but used sparingly, that keeps families in their homes in downturns like these and converts lenders' bad loans into good ones again, that causes a little bleeding in order to prevent a fatal hemorrhage, and that might have saved taxpayers almost a trillion dollars less than a year later, would have been a very, very good thing, and the G.O.P., more interested, as it always is, in Wall Street than it is about Main Street or Elm Street (where real people live), blocked it. But the more salient issue is that the economy might not be in a death spiral right now if there had been a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate last February.

I doubt that the Dems will reach 60 Senate seats on Tuesday -- and even if they do, Democratic Congressional leaders have been so weak at "whipping" their party's members into cohesion on important matters that I doubt all 60 will vote together anyway. But Oregon's Senate challenger, Jeff Merkley, has some excellent ideas on how to defeat spurious filibusters even without a supermajority, which hopefully his more senior colleagues will listen to if he's elected Tuesday. The filibuster is a solvable problem, even without 60 seats -- but only with a solid majority, one that doesn't force Senate Democrats to kiss "independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman's keister, for instance.

So while bipartisanship and isometric political tension are good ideas almost all the time, this is not such a time. This is not an election to "cross vote." It's time to elect a President and Congressional representatives we trust -- and then trust them, giving them real power to solve problems (and, going further, actually demanding that they use that power to solve problems, not tolerating dithering of the kind that Congressional Democrats, in particular, are so good at).

At this point in our nation's history, that means:

(a) Electing more Democrats to Congress, especially to the Senate;

(b) Electing as President a Democrat who is both willing to break from Establishment thinking and can inspire the herd of cats that is the Democratic Congress into pulling together on important issues, and demanding that he then actually act that way; and

(c) If the Congressional leadership can't or won't lead as boldly as their President needs them to do, then changing the Democratic leadership as well, replacing Reid and Pelosi and their lieutenants with progressives who actually have the courage of their convictions.

If we do this, then our government will have a fair chance to solve those problems that only government can solve, which is, after all, its job. And, again, for those worried about Democrats having too much power, if we don't like what a gutsy Democratic government does, we can start cutting it back in only two years, when 1/3 of the Senate and the entire House will be up for re-election.

After six years of Republican dominance of all three branches of government followed by two years of gridlock, doesn't it make sense to give a truly progressive Democratic government a two-year trial run, and see if they can do better than the neoconservatives have?