Monday, February 25, 2013

Parties are more boring than you think

I'm sympathetic to films and TV shows that seek to dramatize politics. There's real drama in politics, of course, but not all of it makes for good public theater, which leaves filmmakers with the difficult task of inventing drama where it doesn't necessarily exist.

Example: In episode 4 of "House of Cards" (U.S. version), Rep. Francis Underwood (D-SC), the Majority Whip, attempted a bit of a coup. The background is that he wanted the Speaker's support for a piece of education legislation. When the Speaker wouldn't provide it, Underwood pitched the Majority Leader with the idea of running for Speaker, guaranteeing him all the minority Republican members' support along with enough Democrats to put him over the top. The Majority Leader angrily dismissed the idea, but then Underwood acted as though the coup was happening anyway, convincing the head of the Congressional Black Caucus to join in (with the chance of becoming Majority Leader himself) and bring most of the Black Caucus with him. The beauty move is that Underwood never had to follow through with the coup -- he went and presented it to the Speaker himself, blaming the sitting Majority Leader for the idea and offering to make it go away in exchange for the Speaker's support on the education bill. When the current Majority Leader protested his innocence, Underwood told him that if he made a scene, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would oppose him in his next primary. The Majority Leader (having actually done nothing wrong) was dismissed from his leadership post anyway and replaced with the head of the Black Caucus. 

It's a pretty interesting strategy for a party leader. So why don't we see this more often in real life?

Because it's insane. Well, maybe not so much insane, but it reflects little of how legislative parties are actually run. The main problem is that Underwood's bluff would not have been remotely believable in real life. The idea that whole Republican caucus would join together to back a Democratic candidate for Speaker? That basically never happens. I checked in with a bunch of congressional experts (well, two: Greg Koger and Jeff Jenkins) on this and confirmed that the last time the majority of one party backed a Speaker candidate from the other party was 1839. Voting for Speaker is the defining partisan act for any member of the U.S. House; people who vote for a candidate of another party usually do not last long in the chamber.

Now, I should note that this occasionally happens in state legislatures, but not inconsequentially. For example, Republicans took over the California Assembly by one seat in 1994. Outgoing Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) brokered a deal in which Assemblywoman Dorris Allen (R-Orange County) became Speaker with every Democratic vote and one Republican vote -- her own. How did Republican activists in her home district react to the fact that their member was now Speaker, the first Republican Speaker in decades and the first female Speaker in the state's history? They recalled her. Conspiring with Democrats was enough to destroy her political career.

All of this is to say that legislative parties do not operate in a vacuum, and members of Congress (even prominent legislative leaders) can't manipulate them at will without expecting significant consequences from party activists outside the chamber. These sorts of stunts generally don't work. Other members know that, which is why people don't usually try to pull these stunts in the first place.

Oh, and the idea that the DCCC would go after a prominent incumbent in a Democratic primary? That also basically never happens, except maybe when a member is accused of some sort of criminal activity that seen as damaging to the party. The DCCC, like other legislative campaign committees, is basically an organization by and for incumbents. It doesn't favor primary challengers over incumbents just because they've lost favor.

The fact that these things really don't happen is a source of great stability in our political system. The behavior of legislative parties is actually quite predictable from day to day, and even very ambitious politicians know they can't bend them to their wishes. That's a nice feature of American politics, even if it makes for dull television.

10 comments:

  1. A more recent cross-partisan coup was successful: the replacement of Tom Craddick with Joe Straus as speaker of the Texas House in 2009. And, as far as I'm aware, nobody involved on either side of the aisle lost their seat as a result. Granted, legislative partisanship historically in the Texas lege is weaker than in Congress or in the California Assembly.

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  2. It's happened in Pennsylvania and New York recently also.

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  3. It also happened in Massachusetts in 1996, when Democrat Tom Finneran became House Speaker because of Republican votes: http://www.jeffjacoby.com/7528/finneran-speaker-of-the-house-not-just

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  4. These are great examples. Thank you all!

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  5. It just happened this year here in the state of WA - the minority party (Rep's) - got two moderate Dem's to switch to their side and elected them Pres of the Senate (effectively speaker) and Majority Leader.

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  6. They called Willie Ayatollah of the Assembly for a reason. I will never forget the story of how he defeated a bill (a noncontroversial bill about dentistry I believe) midvote because its author crossed him. The bill was sailing towards victory in the roll call when Willie made a signal and got essentially the entire chamber to change their vote.

    It was, in the words of one reporter, (paraphrasing) "the greatest exercise of raw power I have ever seen."

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