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Where Is the D.C. Uniparty When We Need It?
A leaderless House makes the case for a bipartisan governance caucus
The eternal complaint of political activists on all sides is that the federal government is controlled by a bipartisan “uniparty,” a stolid and staid D.C. establishment that agrees internally on all the most essential issues and is always out to smother the disruptive plans of radicals.
At the current moment, I think many of us are thinking: if only.
An obstreperous minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives just ousted its own party’s leader for no clear reason, leaving the House with no Speaker and no clear prospect for one, with the threat of another budget crisis and government shutdown looming next month.
Where is the D.C. uniparty when we need it?
A Show About Nothing
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy spent his whole speakership desperately attempting to appease the small House Republican faction led by Florida’s Matt Gaetz. This faction pushed McCarthy to initiate impeachment investigation hearings about President Biden, even though one of the Republicans’ own witnesses declared there was no evidence to support impeachment. This same group then herded McCarthy into what Michael Strain memorably described as a Seinfeldian “shutdown about nothing.”
Previous showdowns over government funding were driven by specific demands for budget cuts that had broad support from a majority in the House, with negotiators working frantically up to the last moment to broker a deal. But what was this one about? There was no Republican plan for reforms or spending cuts, and the only specific result seems to be the removal of aid to Ukraine from the temporary spending bill. That says a lot about the Gaetz faction’s priorities, yet it is still very much a minority position even within the Republican caucus.
So, this shutdown crisis was an act of pure nihilism. It was about a few agitators blowing things up just to show that they could.
The Governance Caucus
Democrats joined with GOP rebels to oust McCarthy, and it’s not hard to see why. At The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes gives a rundown of all the things McCarthy did that made him hateful to the opposition, including breaking agreements and giving exclusive access to footage from the 2021 Capitol insurrection to Tucker Carlson so he could use it to make excuses for the attack. McCarthy’s replacement, Democrats reason, will be either another leader like him (but even weaker) or somebody more moderate. So why lift a finger to save him? After all, it is the duty of the opposition to oppose.
But what we clearly need—the big opportunity of the moment—is for Democrats to pick their nicest, most widely respected moderates, work hard to peel off a dozen or so of the most moderate Republicans, and rally everyone behind a centrist, consensus choice for Speaker.
Maybe it’s not possible. Maybe there aren’t enough remaining “moderate” Republicans who live in districts where their constituents would countenance cooperation with Democrats. There used to be a group of moderate Republicans that called itself the Republican Governance Group. The group still claims 42 members, though they include South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, who joined the radicals in ousting McCarthy, and New York’s Elise Stefanik, who has veered to the far right during the Trump years.
Maybe some Democrats would balk at the idea. It can be easy to forget at a moment like this, but Democrats have a history of being almost as fractious as today’s Republicans, and their fiercest battles have often been fought between “progressives” and centrist “liberals.” Perhaps the Democrats’ own minority of far-left bomb-throwers would object to cooperating with any Republicans and especially to putting moderate Democrats in leadership positions.
But if Democrats can pull this off, think of the value they would gain. A consensus choice for Speaker would end the chaos and make grandstanders like Matt Gaetz as irrelevant as they really are on a national scale. To be sure, it would still not be easy for Democrats to push through any grand-scale legislative initiatives—but then again, it would be no harder than it is now. What this move would do is keep the ordinary, uncontroversial machinery of government going. A coalition of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans would prevent another shutdown and a debt and budget crisis, and it would ensure the continuation of widely popular policies, such as support for Ukraine, through 2024.
What we need is a bipartisan governance caucus of both Republicans and Democrats who are committed to making politics boring again. At the very least, they can cut out the fake drama generated by members whose home districts seem to be in their smartphones and on social media.
Listening to James Madison
Would that mean that “the establishment” wins? Maybe so, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Over the years, the biggest change I’ve made regarding my political views is gaining a much greater appreciation for cautious gradualism. I am in favor of moderation—but not because I am a “moderate.” I have not changed my vision of my ideal outcome: free markets, small government, vigorous national defense—all of which would be a big change from where we are now. But I have given up looking for a radical caucus to sweep in and accomplish that.
This is partly because the radicals who actually come to power and are able to overturn U.S. politics turn out not to be my kind of radicals. And now we’ve seen the ill effects of the radicals’ chaotic attempts to magnify their influence beyond their numbers and wield power without first gaining a broad consensus.
I’ve realized that we have to listen to James Madison. As he explained in The Federalist No. 10, the constitutional system was devised to reduce factionalism by counterbalancing factions against one another, thereby keeping a fanatical minority from gaining power. Our system of government is very deliberately intended to be guided by a broad consensus.
I don’t expect to like that consensus—not always and probably not often. But overwhelmingly, the consensus is going to be preferable to letting the crazies run the show. As North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong complains, “The incentive structure in this town is completely broken... we have descended to a place where clicks, TV hits and the neverending quest for the most mediocre taste of celebrity drives decisions and encourages juvenile behavior.” The kind of person who responds to these incentives is not the kind of person you want running things. This incentive structure needs to be changed, and to do so, all we have to do is listen to the Father of the Constitution.
The Overdue Realignment
If the way forward is for the responsible, centrist elements of both parties to work together, the question arises: If they can do that once, why can’t they keep on doing it? We don’t just need this bipartisan consensus as a temporary stopgap: We need it as a larger realignment.
Political parties tend to reach relatively stable ideological alignments for periods of 30 to 50 years—and then change them. I have argued before that we are overdue for a realignment, and Gaetz and company are evidence that it is already happening. So why not explore the possibilities?
I don’t think the principle for such a realignment should be “moderation,” because that’s not really a principle; it just means going halfway between the loudest voices on either side. Rather, the current moment tells us exactly what the basis for a new alignment needs to be: liberal democracy. This new alignment can define itself in opposition to growing authoritarianism growing overseas, and in opposition also to the former president—foaming at the mouth and vowing to execute his political enemies—here at home. That’s why it’s suggestive that the one thing the Gaetz faction has achieved is cutting aid to Ukraine. It’s a big favor to Vladimir Putin, who provides a model for the kind of government this faction would like.
In opposition to this pseudo-populist authoritarianism, a new political alignment of moderates could stand for liberal democracy and for responsible government that doesn’t throw the nation into crisis just for likes on social media. I think the moderates would find this is a broadly popular cause that can gain strong support. The old crack about a D.C. uniparty reflects a real truth: Most voters do, in fact, support politicians who favor such a moderate, responsible, consensus-driven approach. The crazies on either side really are a minority.
It's time for our representatives in Congress to remember this. If they are the national uniparty, they might as well start acting like it.