The Washington Times

This has been a good year for taking stock of the state of the political system. The reason is that this has been a year of major political change, as drastic as our politics gets, with the Democrats taking charge of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Times of change are good for a reckoning because times of quiet and stasis can be misleading. Specifically, people begin to attribute the mere continuation of the status quo for perfectly ordinary reasons to supposedly new structural characteristics governing outcomes. And then they waste a lot of time trying to remedy the deficiencies of the new structure, rather than getting back to basics.

For example, on the desk of a colleague of mine are a stack of books by assorted esteemed professors wondering if the United States is still a democratic country. Now, it will perhaps come as no great surprise to you that the professors in question think Americans voted for the wrong guy for president in 2000 and 2004, and that the wrong party controls Congress. Since, in their view, Democrats are objectively the better party for the country, the question is what accounts for their inability to be acknowledged as such by the electorate?

There would seem to be two possibilities: First, the electorate are morons who don’t understand their own interests. That’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight, of the thesis of Thomas Franks’ 2004 “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The second, popular this year, is that the failure is with American democracy as such, hence “Is Democracy Possible Here?” by Ronald Dworkin and “Does American Democracy Still Work” by Alan Wolfe.

May I suggest that the victory of the Democrats this year will do much to allay such concerns? Not all, to be sure: That would probably require the eradication of the GOP as an electoral force to be reckoned with at all. But it’s a start.

Similarly, as Republicans contemplated the political world in the early 1990s, entrenched incumbency looked like a huge problem. Once you get to Congress and get re-elected once, the seat is yours for life, or so it seemed. The only solution: Term limits. Restore the tradition of the citizen-legislator, and get the professional politicians out of politics. Then, real reform will also be possible. Needless to say, the advantages of incumbent protection gave out for Democrats in 1994, with the big GOP win, and it took Republicans little more than a couple of years to figure out that they didn’t like their conclusion about the need for term limits any more.

This year’s election also brushed away an argument I’ve been flirting with, namely, that congressional districts are so uncompetitive now that you really only have a meaningful election for control of the House following redistricting after the Census is taken. Otherwise, incumbent advantage through district map-drawing is dispositive. And so it is, except when it isn’t, as in 2006. It’s not that there’s nothing to the concerns people are expressing before an election comes along to clarify matters; it’s that people risk losing a sense of proportion in discussing them.

Debunking erroneous or at least questionable inferences about the state of politics is one function of major political change. Sometimes positive conclusions also swim into view. For example, it seems clear that there is a huge tension within the political system produced by one-party control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Partisanship escalates dramatically, because the party in control tends to see the minority as irrelevant and capable of being ignored, whereas the minority feels no stake in the outcomes the system produces. There are not a lot of instances from which to generalize, but the result tends to be unstable and to flame out spectacularly within the next two national elections. This is the environment in which Democrats won Congress in 1954, Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 (after the longest postwar period of single-party control), Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide in 1980, the GOP took over the House majority in a landslide in 1994 and the Democrats took it back in a landslide in 2006.

As we know, the Constitution the Founders drew up didn’t anticipate the creation of political parties. The idea behind the separation of powers was that Congress would protect its interests as the legislative branch in creative tension with the president protecting the interests of the executive branch. It seems quite clear, to put it modestly, that the congressional majority conceives of the role of protecting its interests differently when the president is of the same party than when he comes from the other party.

You might think that a president would benefit from having Congress in the control of his party, and in short run, he does. But not without long-term risk. The “blending,” as it were, of the legislative and executive functions thanks to the influence of party seems to create a potentially explosive electoral environment, one that invites a radical restoration of checks and balances. Mr. Bush will be learning more about this in the new year.