Once upon a time, back in the mid-1960s, George Wallace, the Democratic governor of the great state of Alabama, considered the possibility of making a run for the Presidency of the United States as an Independent Party candidate. Wallace commenting on the similarities between the Democratic and Republican platforms of the time famously remarked, “There’s not a dimes’ worth of difference between them.” The political historians and journalists can debate the significance of Wallace and his statement until the donkeys and the elephants come home, but last week Congressional Quarterly, the venerable recorder of Capitol Hill news and happenings, analyzed 21 votes in the Senate and 27 votes in the House of Representatives in the first three months of the current Congress. The magazine’s purpose was to establish the voting trends in the new Congress and to predict the future of the Obama agenda, such as it is, in the final year of the administration. The study and the results affirmed some of the widely believed journalistic narratives concerning our politics today, but others, however, challenge the conventional wisdom.
The CQ analysis does, in large measure, confirm the idea that the House of Representatives is clearly divided by Party with the Democrats supporting President Obama almost universally, and the Republican members opposing the Obama agenda nearly as vigorously. The magazine pointed out that the average Democratic member of Congress supported the Obama position on 97 percent of the votes. The average Republican member of Congress supported the Obama position on 7 percent of the votes, obviously opposing the president 93 percent of the time. The analysis showed that 84 House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have supported Obama on each and every vote they have cast, while 26 Republicans have voted against the president on every roll call, supporting nothing that President Obama advocated.
The raw numbers offer data for interesting political speculation. Does the American public want political polarization? Certainly these numbers suggest that the parties do not trend toward the “middle,” and that they stand for different things, and represent different constituencies. In this sense the American system does resemble the parliamentary structure used in much of the democratic world, where each of the contending parties states what they stand for, and choose spokespeople who can enunciate the platform. When they win an election they move to translate the platform to a governing program, and they campaign for votes based on these twin promises. The media insist that the American people want consensus, they want the parties to work together, and they want some sort of concerted action to combat the ills facing American society. Still the figures suggest otherwise, and, while the public might appreciate a more amiable tone in Washington, there is little enthusiasm among either side for defining “consensus” as surrender on the issues.
The numbers also raise the question: What, exactly, is a moderate Democrat? If the average House Democrat supports Obama 97 percent of the time the only way one could plausibly argue that such a creature exists is to argue that Obama, himself, is not a liberal, but is something of a centrist. We might wait for an MSNBC host to begin this argument, but no rational person could believe such an outlandish claim. By the same token, with the average Republican House member supporting Obama only 7 percent of the time it is reasonable to conclude that the Republican Party is truly conservative, at least more so than the Democrats.
The storyline is much different in the Senate. In the upper chamber the party activities bely the narrative of a divided and polarized Washington. Since the seating of the new Senate in January the average Republican senator has supported the Obama agenda 57 percent of the time. The GOP senators who have proved most supportive of the Obama agenda are Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, both of whom voted with Obama more than 80 percent of the time. Regular Congress watchers are not surprised that Susan Collins votes with the Democrats since she has made a habit of doing so, but it is somewhat surprising that Sen. Ayotte, who was mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012, has found a home with the Liberal Republicans. If Ms. Ayotte was seriously considered as a vice presidential candidate it was more of a bouquet tossed out to political correctness by party members who obsess over identity questions, judging candidates as worthy based on race, gender, and/or ethnicity. Are the Republicans now moving in the direction of a litmus test on such things?
A quick look through the numbers gives an observer even more pause for consideration. For instance, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has voted with Obama 67 percent of the time, including the recent vote to affirm the nomination of Loretta Lynch as U.S. Attorney general. Kirk was one of 10 GOP senators to do so. Kirk does face a potentially tough re-election race in a Democratic state, but Illinois is a special case with huge Democratic majorities in Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, East St. Louis, and other areas, but the province is quite conservative and Republican downstate, especially in the Corn Belt. Kirk supports Obama initiatives at his own political peril. Roy Blunt, a generally conservative senator from Missouri, a purple state, has still cast 47 percent of his votes with Obama. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two Republican senators who have announced for the presidency are, quite naturally, the least likely to support Obama with Rubio voting to support the Obama agenda 29 percent of the time, and Cruz checking in a little lower at 23 percent. Astonishingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the Loretta Lynch nomination, has voted in support of the Obama position 76 percent of the time!
On the Democratic side the “divide” is not at all clear. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have been the most likely of the 46 Democrats to deviate from the Obama agenda. This deviation is, however, very slight, with both voting with Obama over 90 percent of the time. McCaskill and Manchin both voted against Obama on the high-profile vote concerning the Keystone XL Pipeline, although each probably would have preferred if the issue had remained bottled up and they, accordingly, could have dodged the vote. Interestingly and quite tellingly, the average Senate Democrat has supported Obama 98 percent of the time!
What do we make of these numbers and what does it tell us about the next few years? One can make an argument that Senate Democrats are mind-numbed robots who slavishly parrot talking points and vote the party line. This will continue with Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in the White House. The Senate Republicans, on the other hand, tend to be more independent and likely to chart a different course, which is in keeping with the Founding Fathers intentions. Many conservatives, including your humble Townhall columnist, would like to see a stouter Republican Party and a clearer and more eloquent anti-Obama strategy, which would be good practice for the grim possibility of a Hillary Clinton administration in the near future, but we’ll have to wait and see about this possibility.
The House Republican caucus still offers conservatives a welcoming home and right-wingers who urge jumping ship on the GOP would do well to remember this fact. So, when we ponder whether George Wallace was right about there being no difference between the parties we have to conclude that he was neither right nor wrong. The CQ analysis proves beyond any doubt that the Democrats are a very liberal party. The study also proves that the lower chamber Republicans are mostly quite conservative, but the Senate Republicans are not so right wing, after all. The American public is left to conclude that the nation has a liberal party, and a party that is ¾ conservative. This might frustrate many but no one can deny that America is a fascinating country and our politics are a lot of fun.