05/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

One Party?

The Founding Fathers believed that individuals would be elected by their fellow Americans based on character and opinions, not party affiliation. The Constitution does not mention parties, and parties play no role in how the federal government works under that revered document. Once the Constitution went into effect, America enjoyed about three years of non-partisan government. Then the first parties emerged, despite the disapproval of George Washington.

We would end up with two major parties. The Federalists under Alexander Hamilton broadly reflected urban and commercial interests; the Democratic-Republican Party under Thomas Jefferson played to rural and farming interests. Both were broad coalitions, with many different philosophies and constituencies. Since cities and farms cannot survive or prosper without each other, the original parties, however vigorously they competed for power and perquisites, did not seek to destroy each other. Compromise and civility lay beneath a politics that provided a daily diet of overheated rhetoric, personal vituperation, crass maneuvering and scandal.

Although the two party system is almost as old as the Republic, other organizations of parties are possible. We could have no parties, as the founders envisioned. We could have many parties, as is the case in most democracies around the world. Or we could have a single party. The Constitution doesn't care.

But daily political life would be different. How so? The health care debate gave us a taste.

In the health care debate, the leadership of the Republican Party made a calculated bet on the tactic of solid, uncompromising opposition. They hoped to break the Democratic Party and the Obama Presidency, which they did not. But they did break the historic operation of the two party system, with consequences for both parties.

The Democrats were forced to behave as a parliamentary governing coalition within themselves. Normally, each party reaches across the aisle to get members of the other party to vote with them on specific issues, reflecting the nature of both parties as loose coalitions of many philosophies. With this avenue blocked, the Democrats had to get their factions into tactical agreement to assemble a voting majority, much like forming a coalition government in a parliamentary system.

The structure of a parliamentary system gives two groups power out of proportion to their numbers: the largest block in the coalition, and the last block to enter the coalition. The last block in gets inordinate attention because it can bargain in a hard-nosed way for its handful of votes. The religious parties in Israel make this an art form, which Bart Stupak and Joe Lieberman imitated in a pale, but annoyingly effective manner.

The largest block has extra influence because everyone knows that the coalition cannot endure without them. By deferring their desires to get a public option into the health care bill, the progressive caucus strengthened its position in the party - assuming it follows up. This influence will show itself more on non-health care issues in the next few months, but anyone who thinks that the public option debate has gone away is just not paying attention.

When it comes time to bring the public option back to the table, progressives will be in a stronger position. The administration and party leadership owe them. There is no risk of derailing the broader health care agenda, because it is already law. Public opinion is much more favorable to the public option than it was to the private insurance overhaul of the just-enacted bill. Progressives may or may not win the day, but with more tail wind and less down side, they can afford to push much harder.

If we continue on the parliamentary path, the Senate rules that give the minority and individual Senators extraordinary procedural powers will be sure to change. Those rules are not part of the Constitution, but rather a reflection of over two centuries of two-party governance. They have no equivalent in other democracies, because as we observed, they lead a multi-party system to dysfunction and have no utility to a single party.

Only in our uniquely American two-party system are those rules possible, or necessary. They do not protect us from every bad outcome, like the War in Iraq or the mounting federal deficit. But they have, time after time, let a piece of ill-conceived legislation passed by the House in the passion of the moment die a natural death as the good nature of the American people reasserts itself. Or, they have given a Senator with deep convictions the opportunity to make the case to the people, sometimes effecting a deep change, sometimes not.

In the behavior of the Democrats, the public got a taste of what a parliamentary democracy would look like under the US Constitution. Philosophical differences and intramural politicking become more prominent. It's a bonanza for cable news outlets. It is not clear whether it is better or worse governance, but it is different.

Oddly, the choice of whether to continue or abandon this experiment lies with the Republicans. The Democrats did what they had to do, proving that they can govern either way. The Republicans could go back to historically normal two-party behavior, and undertake what would likely be a long, hard slog back to power. Or, they could double-down on the bet on tactical opposition, hoping against hope to bring down Obama and the Democrats.

If they take that path and fail, the Republican Party risks complete marginalization. America would become even more of a parliamentary democracy. We could be locked into a single party for decades, suffering from institutional arteriosclerosis, like Japan. Or we could have ever shifting coalitions of many parties, suffering constant instability, like Italy or Israel. Or, after some time, a viable second party would emerge, and the 220-year American experiment in two party democracy would continue, albeit with different players.

My money would be on door number three.