What we need is a governing coalition
- January 28, 2016
With each passing election, government seems to become a little more dysfunctional. Instead of the basic blocking and tackling of lawmaking, what we’re mostly getting is politicians blocking the opposition, but not tackling the issues. Despite a plentitude of campaign-trail promises, meaningful legislation is grinding to a halt.
'Depending on your perspective, you might think this refers either to national politics or to Virginia politics. It applies to both. Virginia’s statehouse has become a microcosm of Dee Cee. What happens in Dee Cee stays in Dee Cee because nothing is ever really accomplished there. Likewise in Richmond, it’s all blocking and no tackling, with progress grinding to a halt.
Still both parties cling to a belief that having a majority will make things different. Let’s see: Republicans hold the majority in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly. Still, it’s apparent that having a nominal majority is not enough to enact most legislation. Maybe that’s because the Republican majority really isn’t in agreement with itself, much less with the Democrats.
On the national scene, the ideological gulf between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seems a lot less wide than the ocean-size chasm between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.
Likewise in Virginia, the difference between state Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun) and, say, former state Sen. Walter Stosch (R-Henrico) is a lot greater than just about any two Democrats in the General Assembly. Stosch, along with state Sen. John Watkins, retired in 2015, making it harder to find moderate Republicans in the Senate. When it comes to the House of Delegates, it’s arguable that moderate Republicans have long since left the building.
Contrast this with statewide elections, where Democrats have been victorious in all statewide or national elections since Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009. Count them: Barack Obama (second term), Tim Kaine, Terry McAuliffe, Mark Herring, Ralph Northam and Mark Warner. Unable to win on the larger playing field, Virginia’s Republicans have been reduced to being a legislative party.
What’s at work here? At the very least, this is an unintended consequence of gerrymandering. The Republicans win in narrowly crafted districts that discourage local opposition. Incumbents are more afraid of losing in primaries than in general elections. These same districts are irrelevant in statewide races.
What else? Certainly urban versus rural dynamics come into play. The urban areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads are packed with Democratic voters and have the population power to determine the outcome of statewide races, while the Republican base resides in less populous, rural areas.
Both of these are good explanations, but other changes are less obvious. It wasn’t that long ago that our nation saw the rise of the tea party. What is less obvious is that the tea party’s most effective route to power wasn’t through launching a third party, but instead through a calculated, systematic takeover and makeover of the Republican Party. Out with the centrists and in with the extremists.
Take, for example, the defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, by Dave Brat in the 2014 Republican primary. Brat’s ideology is more libertarian than tea party, but third-party and independent candidates rarely win. Brat defeated Cantor by challenging the powerful incumbent in his own party.
The electoral system proscribed by the U.S. Constitution promotes a two-party system. Our system of winner-take-all elections grants power only to the winning party; any second-place party must have the support of close to half of the population to have any chance of winning. This puts any third party at a significant disadvantage. The U.S. system is unlike proportional representation systems used in Britain and many other countries to ensure representation of minority viewpoints.
More than half of the world’s top 25 economies have multiparty systems that necessitate coalitions between two or more parties to create a legislative majority. The cooperating parties agree to disagree on some things while working to agree on others. This is lacking in Washington. It is also lacking in Virginia. Let’s face it, the all-or-none approach just isn’t working.
Early on, the tea party established itself as a marketable brand, but it had to take its political power through the two-party system. The Republican Party — with its combination of evangelicals, social conservatives, gun rights activists, immigration hawks and fiscal conservatives — was the logical choice. Not with a bang, but a whimper, came the end of moderate Republicans. This bifurcation is preventing an effective majority.
The business community abhors uncertainty, but it also hates a lack of progress. We are currently seeing little change or investment. We have continual increases in health-care costs and entitlements, largely borne by the business community.
Regardless of what you favor, campaign promises from both Republicans and Democrats are largely going undelivered. Citizens aren’t getting what they’ve voted for.
Maybe what we need is a governing coalition.