The Party of No

Todd Henderson —  23 February 2010

In the comments to my last post on Mr. Obama’s health proposals (which have gotten worse — price controls!?), “Chris” and I have been having a back-and-forth about what he characterizes as a uniquely Republican disease — obstructionism. He calls Republicans “the Party of No.”

I’m not a political scientist, but this seems like a partisan statement to me. My guess, as expressed in my comments, is that the Republican conduct today in opposing the health reforms is driven by a mix of ideological point of view, desire to be reelected, desire to please contributors, susceptibility to arguments of particular lobbyists, and so on. No matter which of these (or others) is the major driver, it seems silly to me to describe their conduct as new in American politics or a Republican-only phenomenon.

My guess is supported by an interesting paper by Rick Pildes, which he is presenting at a workshop at Chicago today. It is entitled “Ungovernable America: The Causes and Consequences of Polarized Democracy.” Pildes writes about Democrat obstructionism of the Bush Administration:

Moreover, while still in opposition, [Pelosi] argued . . . that the Democrats should not assist in trying to improve Republican legislation, but should be oppositional throughout, in an effort to draw sharp contrasts with the aim of taking over the chamber in later elections. She discouraged Democrats from co-sponsoring bills with Republicans, to avoid enabling Republicans to look bipartisan and discouraged ranking Democrats from negotiating with Republicans on their committees. For example, during the debates over privatizing Social Security, she, along with Senator Reid, decided the Democrats would not only oppose Bush’s efforts, but would not offer any alternative, nor negotiate with Bush, until he gave up priviazation.Whether in opposition or in the majority, Pelosi is in many ways a mirror image of Newt Gingrich when it comes to using rules and institutional structures to realize a vision of unified and polarized partisan combat. (Footnotes omitted).

There are interesting questions raised by the fact of polarization Pildes describes. Is this a good or bad thing from a social welfare perspective? Big government types might think it is bad, because it may lead to less big government, but on the other hand, the government is ever growing, and making change more difficult locks in entitlement programs and allows the bureaucracy to creep, if not run. Small government types might think it is bad for this last reason, but might also think it is good because it prevents even more radical change. George Will’s highly entertaining talk at CPAC makes this argument.One might also ask how we can try to fix the polarization problem, if there is one. Pildes offers some interesting suggestions, including mandating open primaries, because these generally put forth more moderate candidates.

But one thing that is not an interesting question, because it is patently false, is that Republicans are uniquely obstructionist and bad. It is true that a tenet of conservatism is to be against change — what William Buckley called the urge to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop” — but this is not necessarily informative about the willingness to govern. After all, we start today with a modern welfare state of unprecedented proportions in this country, and therefore the need to legislate to reduce the size of government is as strong as the need for the other side to legislate to increase it.

If there are problems with politics today, there are problems with politics today, not with this party or with that party. Let’s have the debate about the role of government in our lives and how much government we are willing to pay for. Calling each other names — Party of No!, Socialists! — doesn’t seem very helpful to that debate. This is something we all learned on the playground, but seem to have forgotten.

One response to The Party of No


    I see that our debate has inspired a new post. My only comment is that I never said that the Republican party is “uniquely” obstructionist, and I never denied that the Democratic party has at times been obstructionist.

    Leaving aside more recent history, it is undisputed that a significant part of the Democratic party was highly obstructionist in resisting moves toward racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the use of the filibuster even then (or in any Congress prior to present one) is dwarfed by its use by the minority (the Republican party) in this Congress. As with many things, there can be degrees of obstructionism. It is now coming to pass that the media is referring to majority rule as if it were some new-fangled (and probably undemocratic) political process.