Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is There Room For a Third Party in the Senate?

Joe Lieberman gets to say things that other centrist Senators—like Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins—probably think but keep to themselves (my emphasis):

“It's a good thing that voters have moved against the prospect of one-party control of Congress for decades, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said.

"Lieberman, an Independent senator who caucuses with Democrats, acknowledged momentum for the GOP and said that independents had become alienated from Democrats, who control both the House and the Senate.

"There were a lot of people, particularly Democrats, who were declaring after the 2008 election that we were beginning a period of Democratic dominance that would go on for decades," Lieberman said during an interview with the conservative Newsmax magazine. ‘Now, all of a sudden, the momentum is with the Republicans. And that's — thank God — that's the way people have spoken, you know? That's our democracy.’” 
It’s not surprising that Lieberman, and I suspect the others, pine for divided government. They’d all be well-positioned to broker agreements between a Democratic White House and a Republican majority in congress. But Lieberman is the only one of them who had a discernible impact on the shape of ObamaCare (by almost single-handedly killing the Medicare buy-in) and suffered no obvious political damage by its passage. All Lincoln got for her efforts was a primary challenge from the left and, if she survives that, a steep uphill climb in the general election.  Specter got a primary challenge in both parties and, along with Nelson, the reputation across the political spectrum for being an unprincipled hack. And Snowe and Collins were so visibly ineffectual that Maine voters must be asking themselves whether they’d be better off with Democratic Senators.

What Lieberman had going for him was that, having won reelection as an "Independent Democrat" in 2006, he was free to put ideological distance between himself and the Democratic and Republican Parties without betraying his constituents’ trust. That enabled him to play the political role we associate with figures from parties in parliamentary democracies that are too small to contemplate forming a government, but sometimes hold the balance of power in a close election—like the Liberal Democrats in the U.K. Those parties tend to exercise power out of proportion to their electoral support because the major parties never know whether they’ll need them in the future.

That raises a question: can more than one Senator play Lieberman’s game? Suppose all of the people I’ve mentioned had, after having originally won election to the Senate as major party candidates, gotten themselves re-elected as members of the Gang of Six on the understanding that they’d caucus together and usually vote as a block.

If ObamaCare would have passed at all under those circumstances, it would surely have been a smaller and more fiscally conservative bill more to the Gang’s liking. And wouldn’t each of the Gang’s members, including Lieberman, arguably be in better political shape than they are now? Snowe and Collins don’t get much political mileage out of their Republican affiliation or much campaign financing that they couldn’t get on their own. (That’s why, whenever the Senate is evenly divided, there’s always talk of them being induced to switch parties.) Lincoln, Nelson and Specter are all now demonstrating how hard it is to be a reelectable Democratic centrist. And Democrats and Republicans would find it much harder to ignore Lieberman’s sanctimonious bipartisanship.

No comments: