Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Elections, Gridlock, and Republican Virtues

Timothy Sherratt


This week's column features the second in our series responding to the 2010 midterm elections from "30,000 feet."  The Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope series will resume next week.

November 12, 2010
?by Timothy Sherratt

In post-election commentary, Speaker-elect John Boehner has emerged as the political leader with the most challenging job in Washington. His challenges come not only from the White House and the Senate, where Democrats hold sway, of course, but also from his side of the House aisle, where ideological agreement may be no match for populist principle.

Comparisons to the Republican Revolution of 1994 are instructive precisely because they are limited. Boehner is more of a deal-maker than Newt Gingrich.  Barack Obama is less of one than Bill Clinton. The 1994 Republicans were united around the Contract With America. The Tea Party has, in the words of freshman Senators-elect Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), put the G.O.P. on probation.

The White House response to electoral defeat has yet to become clear. President Obama is a planner whose plan has gone awry, despite some notable and under-defended achievements in the first two years. Now that he has lost the numerical majorities that provided the mathematical foundation for those achievements, he must change course. But he has no track record of innovation.

Gridlock need not be the final outcome of divided government.  Reluctant cooperation followed the government shutdown debacles of 1995, which taught Republican leaders that their options were more limited than they had thought, in part due to an inability to discipline their own members. With both Democratic President and Republican Congress humbled by defeat, a period of fruitful domestic policy-making followed, epitomized by the welfare reform legislation of 1996.

A similar productivity between now and 2012 is unlikely, however. Then, Republicans could count on defections of the “Blue Dog” Democrats to bolster their numbers.  Many of these seats went Republican last Tuesday, however. The remaining Democrats typically represent districts whose electorates support the administration and its policies, so those representatives have little electoral incentive to cooperate with the Republicans.

Hence the challenges faced by the new Speaker. If the Tea Party insists that its core demands be met, Speaker Boehner will be hard pressed to meet them. Senate Democrats will block repeal of the healthcare law, for example, backed if necessary by a Presidential veto. Congressional hearings could be called to expose the legislation’s defects but these would also allow the Administration to showcase its virtues. Alternatively, should the new Speaker seek to reach accommodation with the Administration, he will anger Republican populists. Either prospect risks electoral chaos for the G.O.P. in 2012.

Throughout the past campaign season, Tea Party groups urged Americans to recover Constitutional values. This is sound advice in the face of gridlock. For better or worse, the framers created a system whose pluralistic distribution of power facilitates stonewalling unless certain republican virtues are exercised. Persuasion, humility, compromise, and patience are among them. These political virtues form the enduring legacy left by the framers, not some imagined perfection in the balance of federal and state power—a notoriously unstable equilibrium throughout America’s political history. In political scientist Charles Jones’ words, “The separated system can enhance the speculative imagination so essential for democratic lawmaking.”

There are, arguably, better ways to guarantee representation of multiple points of view than the framers’ separation of powers and federalism. Proportional representation and multiple parties are commended by their extensive adoption in modern democracies around the world. However, as the United States contends with the challenges of the “hourglass economy,” whose high tech and service jobs compensate only in part for the lost industrial economy that sustained the American middle class, the political groupings empowered by the recent elections would do well to recover these virtues, “speculative imagination” among them.

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Studies at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”