JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 11, 2010
The longstanding view of official Washington is that all political problems result from a decline of bipartisanship and civility. It is a powerful, yet vacuous belief, invoked constantly but almost never argued in any remotely terms.
Susan Collins takes a crack at defending this belief in a Washington Post essay. Collins' essay is a valuable document, a perfect gem of intellectual incoherence, for its inadvertent exposure of the vacuity of the establishment view.
Collins' premise is simple: Republican control of Congress would be good because it would introduce divided government and hence more civility and bipartisan cooperation:
When one party has all the power, the temptation is to roll over the minority, leading to resentment and resistance because the minority has so few options.
It wasn't always this way. There were times when those who worked to avert legislative implosions were more welcome. In 2005, a group of senators came together to negotiate an agreement for considering judicial nominees. This "Gang of 14," of which I was part, sought to avoid what was known as the "nuclear option," a change in the Senate rules that would have brought about a legislative meltdown.
A few problems with this thesis present themselves immediately. First, we have a recent example of divided government: 2007-2008, when Democrats controlled Congress and Republicans the White House. It was not an Edenic time of bipartisan cooperation. The next most recent period of divided government, 1996-2000, featured government shutdowns and a wildly partisan attempt to impeach the president.
Collins does provide an example of bipartisan cooperation: the Gang of 14. Unfortunately for her thesis, this occured during a period of single-party control of Washington. And it was precisely an example of the majority attempting to "roll over the minority," by changing the rules of the Senate.
After praising the Gang of 14 -- "Our deal restored trust and helped preserve the unique culture of the Senate" -- Collins proceeds to argue that nastiness and partisanship have taken over:
Oh, how times have changed. When I led the effort in 2009 to try to produce a more fiscally responsible stimulus bill, I was attacked by partisans on both sides. On the left, I was attacked by columnists for cutting $100 billion from the bill and mocked in the blogosphere as "Swine Flu Sue" for my contention that spending for a pandemic flu did not belong in the stimulus package but should be part of the regular appropriations process. On the right, I was denounced as a traitor and a RINO ("Republican in name only"), and one of my Republican colleagues targeted me for a campaign that generated tens of thousands of out-of-state e-mails denouncing me.
The stimulus bill was an effort to spark consumer demand through Keynesian pump-priming. Many conservatives adopted the position that Keynesian pump-priming cannot work. They opposed the bill. Advocates of the bill presumably accepted the basic contours of its intellectual rationale. Yet they insisted on changes that made the bill less effective. There was no particular intellectual theory guiding the actions of Collins and her moderate GOP allies. They could point to no analysis that claimed their intervention made the bill more effective. To be sure, they could say that a smaller bill was still better than no bill, but that is not a good defense when you are the one making the bill smaller. To advocates of the stimulus, Collins and her allies seemed to be operating from pure political expediency, unlike both the opponents and the proponents of the bill, who had at least some economic basis for their stance.
So what horrors befell Collins for her stance? A columnist criticized her. Bloggers questioned her opposition to swine flu spending. Conservatives sent her emails. Oh, how could such terrible things be allowed to happen?
If you suspected that the voices of establishment Washington really have no conherent views about substance, and cherish their own prerogatives -- especially the absence of criticism of any kind -- then Collins' rambling essay will confirm your suspicions. The most hilarious bit comes near the end, when she invokes Ronald Reagan:
His belief in the power of political civility also led to his formulation of the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."
This is absolutely priceless. Reagan's dictum about not criticizing fellow Republicans was not an expression of a belief in "civility." It was an expression of a belief in partisanship. That's why he made no allowance for not criticizing Democrats. Collins is obviously attracted to the notion because it justifies silencing intra-party criticism of her.