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The death of responsible party government

Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.)
Greg Nash

Seventy-one years ago, the American Political Science Association (APSA) published a small book titled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” The document was the work of the APSA Committee on Political Parties, which was composed of prominent political scientists. After four years of deliberation, the committee determined that the American party system was in a perilous state, citing the federal government’s inability to pass vital legislation (including civil rights). The APSA concluded that each party was “ill-equipped to organize its members in the legislative and executive branches into a government held together by the party program.” Such paralysis was “a very serious matter, for it affects the very heartbeat of American democracy.”

Receiving the report at the White House, President Truman expressed his support for “maintaining our two-party system” and warned that “unless we are very careful it can become obsolete and that we don’t want.”

The 1950 APSA report stated that “responsible” parties should present their governing ideas to the American people in such a coherent manner that voters could make informed choices. Today, the idea of a responsible party government is dead. Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wy.) ouster from the House Republican leadership had nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with her refusal to pledge loyalty to President Trump. In a speech on the House floor, Cheney stated the obvious: “This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship.”

An examination of Cheney’s voting record amplifies her argument. Votes cast by Cheney and her replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), show Cheney to be the more conservative voice. Records compiled by Heritage Action for America give the Wyoming Republican a lifetime 80 percent rating of support versus a 48 percent rating for Stefanik. And when it came to supporting Donald Trump, Stefanik voted with him just 78 percent of the time; Cheney, 93 percent. Stefanik’s votes against Trump were particularly noteworthy. On tax reform, Trump’s singular legislative achievement, Stefanik voted “no.” She tried to block Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords; voted to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration to fund his border wall; and condemned Trump for petitioning the courts to invalidate ObamaCare. Today Stefanik has become the personal embodiment of political opportunism.

When a party is out of power, the APSA believed it still played a vital role: “The opposition party acts as the critic of the party in power, developing, defining, and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.” In short, the opposition party selectively chooses from an array of issues on which it disagrees with the majority. But Republicans have not behaved that way for several years.

In 2010, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared that his singular focus was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. To achieve that end, Republicans opposed everything Obama wanted, including ObamaCare. Recently, McConnell again doubled down on his opposition, saying 100 percent of his focus is on “stopping” the Biden administration. This ignores the solemn responsibility of the minority party to carefully select its disagreements with the majority and highlight them in upcoming electoral contests.    

In 2015, when Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his presidential candidacy, he understood that the Republican establishment was so weak that it could be his Hertz rental car. But instead of renting space atop the GOP ticket, the Republican Party became his most prized acquisition. As president, Trump demanded total loyalty and made the party subject to his whims and policy reversals. Republican officeholders often ignored Trump’s tweets and inconsistencies, either pretending ignorance or offering no comment. 

But on Jan. 6, Trump incited an insurrection that temporarily stopped Congress from performing its constitutional duty to count the electoral votes and certify the 2020 presidential election. For the first time, the executive branch declared war on its legislative counterpart. Any Republican who disagreed with Trump’s contention that the election was “stolen” was ostracized. That included Liz Cheney, who denounced Trump, saying, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” Stefanik, on the other hand, opposed Trump’s impeachment and voted against certifying the 2020 election, citing “irregularities.” That earned her Trump’s “COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair.”

Back in 1950, the APSA issued a prescient warning: “When the President’s program actually is the sole program. . .either his party becomes a flock of sheep or the party falls apart.” Such dominance, they continued, “favors a President who exploits skillfully the arts of demagoguery, who sees the whole country as his political backyard, and who does not mind turning into the embodiment of personal government.”

This is the state of today’s Republican Party. As Donald Trump, Jr. rightly told those who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6: “This isn’t their party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican party.” When the committee issued its famous warning about powerful presidents dominating their party, they cautioned that such an event “might very well ring in the wrong ending.” That “wrong ending” is upon us.

A vibrant Republican Party, one centered around policy differences with the governing Democrats, is vital to our democracy. Back in 1974, Ronald Reagan urged Republicans to raise “a banner of bold colors, no pale pastels. A banner instantly recognizable as standing for certain values which will not be compromised.”

Today, those values have evaporated into an absolute fealty to Donald Trump. In the words of Liz Cheney, only when Republicans “decide to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution” can Republicans and Democrats debate policy choices. Offering voters distinct issue differences is premised upon both parties’ acceptance of the rule of law. Absent agreement on the rules of the game, responsible party government is dead.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Elise Stefanik January 6 Capitol attack Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell political polarization Republican Party

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