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Richard Mourdock and the Politics of Dysfunction

by Edward Alden
May 10, 2012

Yard signs in Indiana. (kennethkonica/Flickr) Yard signs in Indiana. (kennethkonica/Flickr)

Richard Mourdock, who defeated long-serving Senator Richard Lugar this week for the GOP nomination in Indiana, is a serious politician. He served two terms as state treasurer and ran for the House of Representatives three times. Therefore, his comments in the wake of his decisive primary victory over Lugar, a highly respected conservative senator known for his occasional willingness to work across the aisle, deserve to be taken seriously. And they demonstrate as clearly as anything I’ve read why the Congress is becoming so dysfunctional and incapable of dealing with the enormous challenges facing the country.

Two comments stand out. First, Mourdock said: “This is a historic time and the most powerful people in both parties are so opposed to one another that one side simply has to win out over the other.”

And secondly: “My idea of bipartisanship, frankly, going forward is to make sure we have such a Republican majority in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the White House that if there’s going to be bipartisanship, it’s going to be Democrats coming our way instead of them trying to pull Republicans their way.”

Given the size of Mourdock’s victory among GOP voters, and his strong support from within the party, it is evident that these views are widely shared. But both statements are wrong. The first has always been false, and the second has been untrue for many years now.

The notion that “one side simply has to win out over the other” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. political system. As Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute point out in their surprising new bestseller It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (#80 and back-ordered on Amazon), the U.S. government simply cannot function that way. In a parliamentary system like Britain or Canada, one side can actually win a majority government and spend the next five years implementing its program before it has to face the voters again. The U.S. system of government, in contrast, was explicitly designed to ensure that one side never wins out over the other. While occasional victories for a single party are certainly possible, major legislation almost always requires bipartisan compromise.

The second statement is more interesting, because at one point it was largely true. Bipartisanship as it existed for much of the post-war era was a product of Democratic domination of the Congress. From 1949 to 1993, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and only lost the Senate four times, three of those in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president. While the White House switched back and forth, Democratic control of the Congress was such that any Republican who wanted to influence legislation had to be bipartisan on terms that were largely dictated by the Democrats.

It is not unreasonable for a Republican politician to wish the same today in reverse. But the terms of the game have changed, largely because of the Republicans’ willingness to use the Senate’s full panoply of obstructionist privileges. With the filibuster having become a normal legislative tool rather than an exceptional measure, virtually all legislation requires a three-fifths majority. So for Mourdock’s wish to become reality, the Republicans would have to take the White House, hold the House, and pick up more than a dozen seats in the Senate. There is not a single serious political strategist who believes this is possible.

And even 60 votes in the Senate is not much of a margin. The Democrats briefly enjoyed the full trifecta for President Obama’s first two years, and all they have to show for it is a health care bill that looks very little like what hard-core Democrats had sought. Two other Democratic priorities — an energy bill to curb carbon emissions and an immigration reform bill — never got off the ground.

One plausible theory is that the sole aim for politicians like Mourdock is to shrink the size and role of the federal government. But even for that purpose, a gridlocked Congress will fail. The big spending programs like Medicare and Social Security will continue to grow unsustainably unless Congress intervenes, and taxes will rise with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. A government on auto-pilot is hardly in the interests of Republicans.

The impulse to fight for one’s beliefs is understandable and laudable. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz said, then politics is also war by other means — a means for resolving differences without violence. But to succeed in either, you have to understand the terrain on which you are fighting. Mourdock’s comments suggest he does not. And the more politicians who come to Washington with such views, the harder it will be to govern the country effectively.

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