The anomaly of Republican unanimity

This questionable imitation of a column notwithstanding, I’m not a journalist and therefore play no role in determining what the story is.

In my humble opinion, however, by focusing on one or two Democrats who may fail to support legislation deemed critical by the overwhelming majority of their co-partisan colleagues, actual journalists are missing the real story. 

Famed New York Sun editor Charles Anderson Dana, who served as liaison between the War Department and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, is said to have advised a younger colleague who asked what constituted news, “If you should see a dog biting a man, don’t write it up. But if you should see a man biting a dog, spare not money, men, nor telegraph tolls to get the details to the Sun office.”

I’m not here to defend the putative Democratic dissenters, with whom I personally disagree. But senators and House members differing with their party is neither unusual nor anomalous. Rather it is the norm. 

What is historically atypical and extraordinary is unanimity within party. 

In short, potential Democratic defections are not really the story. What is strange and striking is the Republican Party marching in straitjacketed uniformity, unwilling to brook any dissent. 

When Medicare passed Congress in 1965, seven of 68 Democratic senators voted against it, while 13 of 32 Republicans supported it. In the House, 48 Democrats voted “nay,” while 70 Republicans were “yeas.”

Partisan defection on Medicare would have been no surprise to then-President Johnson. As majority leader, and later vice presidential nominee in 1960, Johnson joined Republicans on 12 of 76 mostly party-line votes, while his GOP counterpart, Everett McKinley Dirksen voted with the Democrats on 11 of those 76 roll calls. 

Some partisan defection continued well into the current era. Eleven House Democrats opposed the stimulus bill backed by the newly elected President Obama in 2009, while three Republican senators supported it. 

Thirty-four House Democrats opposed ObamaCare, and when Senate Republicans tried to undo it, three of them rebelled, opposing their caucus, and voting to keep the law intact.

Yet today, not one single Republican seems willing to support President Biden’s economic recovery effort. Not one Republican supported the American Rescue Plan and not one seems likely to support the budget bill.

The anomalous fact that cries out for explanation — the man biting the dog — is not the possible defection of a Democrat or two, but the lockstep unanimity of the Republicans.

One could argue these Republicans are merely following the dictates of their constituents. But this seems quite unlikely. 

Nine House Republicans and three Senate Republicans represent jurisdictions that voted for Biden. Far from perfect evidence, but do we really think those voters oppose the president’s economic recovery plan? No available polls suggest they do. 

Nationally, a third or more of Republican voters favor the plans. Who is representing them? Zero percent of Republican legislators support those plans.

No doubt, as one recent study by half a dozen scholars concluded, “Congressional partisanship has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years…” And yes, John F. Kennedy’s classic, “Profiles in Courage,” is a slender volume.

But until recently there have always been at least a few who saw things differently than their colleagues and were willing to defy their party. 

No longer. The GOP’s partisan straitjacket now exerts a wholly irresistible force. 

That’s the story — it deserves telling and understanding.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.  

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