Breaking the Machinery of Division

I wasn’t all that surprised to hear about Richard Clarke’s allegations against the Bush Administration — it all jibes with stuff we’ve been hearing about them from the beginning. The only thing that surprises me less, really, is how quickly the partisans on both sides have laid out the talking points for why he’s credible or why he’s not. Suddenly, Clarke is either a pompous, craven opportunist or a truehearted civil servant finally speaking out — there’s precious room for anything in between, though you can find more “nuanced portrayals”: out there if you look.

It’s a commonplace notion that Washington is divided; what’s surprising is how trenchant the partisanship has continued to be. Bush’s out of control spending and interventionist foreign policy should be pissing off Congressional conservatives, to say nothing of the fact that the White House knowingly lied to Congress about the real costs of a Medicare Bill that, now that it’s passed, _nobody_ seems happy with. So where’s the revolt? You won’t see it, because as much as Bush’s credibility is crumbling, if Congressional Republicans decide he’s no good the only alternative is Kerry, and a big swing for Kerry will ripple into Congressional races, and the Republicans could lose the Senate, and — on a reeeally long shot — the House. No matter how many leaks there are in Bush’s boat, Republicans can’t afford to abandon ship.

The lock-step phenomenon is institutional, but the current White House is encouraging it. Clarke is only the most recent person to “voice this sentiment”:

For one, the Bush White House assumes that everyone who works for them is part of a personal loyalty network, rather than part of the government. And that their first loyalty is to Bush rather than to the people. When you cross that line or violate that trust, they get very upset.

What we have here is an object lesson on the weakness of the two party system. Even when there’s not a President enforcing the us-or-them mentality with playground-style bullying, it’s still there. I think voters would be better off without it — years of forcing us into two camps has encouraged a division among the populace as well. The whole “Red Nation/Blue Nation”: meme is a gross oversimplification, but one that’s borne out around election time because there’s only two real camps to choose from. But the two party system isn’t going away any time soon. What it will take, as a first step in a long, long process, is a viable third-party or independent candidate in a major election — one whose integrity, charisma, and policy savvy clearly exceed that of her opponents, even if she (or he) doesn’t ultimately win. Our recent contenders (Nader, Perot, Reform Party) haven’t even come close.

So else might be done to, if not bridge the partisan divide, at least get everyone to play nice? Let’s look to Congress. The vast majority of those Congressional Republicans I mentioned earlier aren’t falling in behind Bush because they’re worried they’re going to lose their seats, but because if they lose the majority then they lose their committee chairmanships. If the Democrats should inch above them by a single seat, they lose all their cool special abilites in the Congressional game. They become — cue foreboding music — _the minority party_.

The fact that Congressional power is an all-or-nothing proposition, especially in the House, contributes significantly to the partisan divide. It means that every member’s self-interest is tied up with that of their party, even when their policy positions differ or when their leadership is leading them astray. But it’s not the Constitution that makes it so, just rules of order. So change them. As a start, make committee chairs proportional to each party’s representation, instead of giving them all to one side. I’m not a Hill-dweller, I’m just married to an ex-Hill-dweller, so I’ll have to punt here when it comes to other concrete suggestions. But you get the idea.

Of course, for such a change to happen, the majority party would have to want it to happen. And who ever votes themselves out of power? So maybe it’s as much a pipe dream as a multiparty system would be. Ah well. We can dream.