Why We Need Two Responsible Political Parties

Many years ago, when I was a (Republican) member of the Hudnut Administration, the GOP consistently won elections in Marion County. All of them. Then as now, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans, but Republicans had a remarkable organization that routinely got out the vote, while the Democrats were–as the old joke has it–not members of an organized political party.

During that time, I was asked to speak to a Jewish women’s organization, and I still recall that speech. (Amazing, since these days, I barely remember my name…..) Many, if not most, of the members of that particular organization were Democrats, and my basic message to them was “get off your couches and reinvigorate your party, because every political subdivision works better when the party in power faces a responsible critic, a loyal opposition. No one has all the answers, unchecked power tends to corrupt, and we all benefit when two (or more) political organizations engage in serious, thoughtful debate over the merits of existing or proposed public policies. I believed that then, and I believe it now–but the operative words are “responsible,” “loyal opposition” and “serious, thoughtful debate.

Fast forward 30+ years, to a Republican Party so radicalized that it is impossible to apply those words to most of its members. Those who are serious and responsible are under attack (see: Lugar, Richard.) The behavior of Republicans in Congress has been so outrageous (I word I do not use lightly) that some commentators have actually suggested they are willing to destroy the economy if that is what it takes to destroy Obama. (See: debt ceiling debate). The most recent example of what passes for public policy among them these days is Rep. Paul Ryan’s insistence that no monies be spent for disaster relief unless and until there are offsetting budget cuts (preferably, in his view, from social programs. Evidently, we shouldn’t help one group of unfortunates unless we take the funds away from another group that depends upon our increasingly tattered social safety net). Between rejection of evolution, climate-change and science in general, manifest ignorance of basic economics,  an unseemly rush to support military interventions (and a disinclination to raise taxes to pay for them)…well, let’s just say there are a number of terms that might be applied to our current incarnations of the “know-nothings,” but “serious” and “responsible” aren’t among them.

As a business-school colleague of mine put it during a hallway chat yesterday, “I miss the real Republicans. Even when I didn’t agree with their arguments, the fact that they made thoughtful, rational criticisms made it necessary for me to justify my own policy preferences. I had to do my homework, and so did those who agreed with me. Substantive arguments on both sides results in better rules. That doesn’t work when the Democrats propose “Policy X” and the Republican response is “You’re a poo-poo head.”