Parliamentary mismatch -- why everything's gone to hell

Parliamentary Mismatch

by digby

If you are wondering why the congress suddenly seems to have become a free fire zone and the Democrats seem not to have gotten the memo, please read this piece by Jack Balkin. One thing is clear, unless the Democrats recognize that things have changed, we might as well just order up some tri-corner hats and join the Tea party because they will be the only game in town:
Parliamentary Parties in a Presidential System

Many commentators have noted and bemoaned the obstructionist tactics of the Republicans during Obama's first two years in office, and the likely gridlock that will emerge once the Republican Party takes control of the House of Representatives. To be sure, in today's Washington Post, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell state that they are ready and even eager to work with the Democrats. Despite these assertions of good fellowship, however, it seems clear by now that the Republicans are willing to work with the Democrats only if the Democrats put aside all of their preferred policy goals and more or less adopt the policy goals of the Republican Party. President Obama's recent decision to unilaterally freeze the salaries of federal workers is unlikely to soften the hearts of the Republican faithful and get them to accept a second stimulus package or anything else on the Democrats' wish list. Quite the contrary, this unbargained for concession is likely to make the Republican leadership increase the pressure on President Obama to negotiate with himself.

I want to put concerns about obstruction and gridlock in a larger perspective. What we are facing today is likely to be importantly different from previous periods of divided government before the George W. Bush Administration. The reason is that at the national level, contemporary American politics suffers from a pathological and debilitating condition: the emergence of parliamentary parties in a presidential system.


One should not assume that Congressional Republicans are acting this way because of bad faith or some set of personal failings. Rather, given the evolution of the Republican Party into an ideologically coherent parliamentary-style party in a presidential system, the Republicans are acting rationally. The Democrats, conversely, need to understand that they must work hard to break the Republicans' united front. They will not be able to do this simply by being nice to Republicans, or by attempting to meet the Republicans half-way, for if the Republicans are smart, they will not be assuaged by compromise. Their best strategy is to make Americans thoroughly disgusted with government in general, so that they will throw Barack Obama out of office in 2012. If the Democrats want to achieve anything legislatively in the next few years, they must create strategic problems for individual Republicans, causing them to break ranks despite the best efforts of the Republican leadership. The only way to ensure compromise when parties are polarized as they are is to make the failure to compromise politically costly to individual members of the minority party so.

The next time the Democrats become the minority party, they will have abundant incentives to do precisely what the Republicans are doing now, precisely because the Republicans have shown these strategies to be effective in a climate of ideological polarization. The Republicans fully developed many of their current tactics before the Democrats for three reasons. First, the failure of the Bush presidency and the tarnishing of the Republican brand made the development of these oppositional strategies more urgent for the Republicans following Obama's 2008 victory, when the Democrats controlled the presidency and both Houses of Congress. Second, the Republicans became a more ideologically coherent party more quickly than the Democrats did because they continue to be driven by a powerful conservative social movement. Third, the Republicans have learned how to use campaign finance to discipline their members more effectively than the Democrats have. (In fact, the Democrats, eager to regain power, had recruited a more ideologically diverse group of candidates in 2006 and 2008). But there is no reason to think that the Democrats will not eventually adopt many of the same tactics that the Republicans have perfected if, once again, they find themselves out of power.

I actually think there is every reason to believe the Democrats will not adopt many of the tactics Republicans have perfected because they are just not temperamentally equipped to do it. I think they will continue to pretend, as the media still does, that the beautiful world of Tip and Ronnie will return if only these awful people would just stop making their congressmen and Senators do things they don't want to do until they are pushed hard by the people to change their ways. At this point they do not have a whole lot to lose by losing --- the revolving door takes very good care of them if they promise not to make too many waves, which is exactly what they hate.

Read the whole piece, it's not long and it explains how we got here and why it's a problem for a presidential system. (For instance, you can't call for elections when gridlock makes it impossible to govern.) And although he doesn't mention it, it's also why silly centrist notions like this are destined to do nothing but split the same party that's already outmatched by the hardcore Republicans, thus ensuring that the lunatic fringe of the GOP will continue to have the upper hand.