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Saturday, October 26, 2002


For years now I've described myself as an independent voter – "I vote for the candidate, not the party!" – but now I find myself more concerned about voting the party than the candidate. Specifically – I like Max Cleland. He's a good guy. (And a war hero.) I agree with a lot of the positions he takes – and disagree with a lot of others – but on balance he represents me more than I've learned to expect from a Georgia politician. So why am I considering voting for Saxby Chambliss – a bonehead hack, most of whose campaign commercials have been nasty, brutish, and short on logic? Because of the party affiliations.

Georgia votes Republican for national office and Democrat for local ones, mostly – so by rights it should have one D and one R in the Senate column. A lot of years recently, it has had, but then Paul Coverdell died in office and the Democratic governor appointed Zell Miller to replace him – a Democrat who votes with the Republicans a lot, but a Democrat even so. (A vanishing Southern breed, like those Nor'Easter Republicans who vote with the Democrats all the time, but Zell won't be switching parties any time soon. He's invested too much in endorsing every state-wide Democratic candidate, for one thing.) So the totals in the Senate shift by one, and the numbers determine the chairmanships and staffing – and in the Senate that determines what gets done, or doesn't.

Most Americans lately have come to support divided government, either explicitly or implicitly – which drives the parties crazy, but what are they gonna do? Disenfranchise the voters? (They try. See my redistricting posts.) What we haven't worked out, to any degree of satisfaction, is exactly how the government should be divided. For years I thought about how nice it would be to have a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in Congress: high-minded moral vision in the bully pulpit, and responsible adults doing the legislative nuts and bolts. Of course, that was when a GOP-majority in the House was a pipe dream – until it came true in '94. And after the rush of the institutional restructuring and the initial passage of the Contract with America, that didn't really work out so good. (Good for the economy, disastrous for foreign policy and general governance.) Blame the individuals involved, sure, but maybe the structure was at fault as well. So strike that arrangement.

All-GOP all the time didn't last long, thanks to Jim Jeffords, so we didn't have time to learn why that doesn't work. (I'm sure it would have found a way.) What we do know from the post-Jeffords situation is that Democratic control of the Senate and Republican control of the House and Presidency may be the worst of all balancing acts. Bush proposes – or the House enacts – and the Senate stalls. Unless it does something round about election time solely to change the subject. Daschle and Leahy, particularly, have dedicated themselves to preventing governance: Daschle because, as a consensus-type leader, he doesn't want to take any position until after a consensus has already developed, Leahy either because he's trying to stop the naming of federal judges until the judicial system can collapse under its own weight – God knows why – or because he can't bring himself to allow anyone to the right of a moderate Democrat to be confirmed. Like a broken sump pump, the Senate spits and sparks and gurgles and whirs ... and accomplishes nothing.
So let's try this: Democrats control the House, Republicans the Senate and the White House. Nothing against Dennis Hastert – or for Dick Gephardt – but it might work. The House is more polarized and extremist than the Senate because of the way the districts are drawn, but I suspect that the House Democratic caucus is probably closer to the actual political mainstream than the House Republican caucus is. (Considering the influence the Black Caucus has, I could be wrong. But that might moderate with actual power. Might.) Every chairman in both houses loses their powerbase and ability to set the agenda. Internecine bloodletting ensues, and new alliances are formed. For a while at least, most Congresscritters are as focused on the institutional process and on doing their jobs as on positioning for the next election. It might work.

If it doesn't, in two years we shuffle and redeal.

What can I do about Democratic control of the House? Nothing. I live in one of the 85% of congressional districts that are utterly and intentionally uncompetitive. But it's the first time out after a new census, and an off-year election, and none of the pollsters I've heard have much of a clue what the election-day drivers are going to be, so it could happen. The Senate I can do something about, maybe, or at least try to – and I'm considering it.

I don't actually know if I'll be able to hold my nose and practice Strategic/Positional Voting after all – or if it's really a good thing for our overburdened representative democracy that I'm thinking about it. But I am.

Update: Jacob Levy has some valuable insights on this issue - link via the IndispensaPundit - but I don't consider myself a median voter. (I think I know one, though - at least Georgia median.) So tactical voting remains an open question for me.

posted by Kelly | 8:04 PM link