Polarized Parties Play Parliament

April 16th, 2010

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This piece was originally posted in National Journal.

American politics is becoming more parliamentary. British politics is becoming more presidential. Oddly, though, the countries are moving further apart, not closer. In the United States, the major parties are shifting toward greater polarization. In Britain, where an election has been called for May 6, all signs point toward a more centrist government.

Democrats in Congress behaved like a parliamentary majority when they passed health care reform last month. They won a mandate in 2008, and overhauling health care was very much a part of it. According to the party’s 2008 platform, “Democrats are united around a commitment that every American man, woman, and child be guaranteed affordable, comprehensive health care.” Party platforms are not supposed to mean much in American politics. Politicians routinely ignore them after every election. In parliamentary systems, by contrast, a platform is the party’s blueprint for governing.

In this case, Democrats acted exactly like a parliamentary majority: They followed their blueprint. Health care reform was not the product of a bipartisan coalition, unlike most major legislation in U.S. history. For many Americans, that was unsettling.

The “tea party” movement is pulling the Republican Party to the right. “There’s no shame in being the ‘Party of No,’ ” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said last week. The GOP’s prospective 2012 presidential candidates are scrambling to head off criticism from the Right over their former positions on health care (ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney), federal stimulus funds (Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty), and bank bailouts (Sen. John Thune of South Dakota). Mainstream Republican senators are taking heat for occasionally being willing to collaborate with Democrats.

Meanwhile, the British election appears to be headed for a “hung Parliament,” with no party holding a majority. The latest polls show the opposition Conservative Party leading by 8 percentage points, probably not a large enough advantage to give it control. A lot of Conservative votes are “wasted” in high-turnout constituencies with large Conservative majorities. Moreover, the party would have to gain at least 117 seats in the House of Commons to take power. That would be one of the largest swings in British history.

In a hung Parliament, the moderate Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power and could form a coalition government, most likely with Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party. Brown has promised to support a package of electoral reforms that would appeal to Liberal Democrats, including fixed terms for members of Parliament, an elected House of Lords, and a recall procedure allowing voters to throw out corrupt politicians. In other words, American-style reforms.

For the first time ever, the British television networks will broadcast face-to-face debates between the three party leaders. That is likely to provide a boost to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who is 43, new, and anti-establishment. Third-party candidates always benefit from debates because the face-offs give them equal stature with the major-party contenders. Debates are also likely to create an American type campaign in which personalities and leadership skills count more than ideology.

Why are the two countries moving in opposite directions? Because in Britain, the Left and the Right are exhausted. Labor has been in power for 13 years, the first 10 under Prime Minister Tony Blair. He shifted the party to the center and won an unprecedented three consecutive electoral victories. Now the Labor agenda seems rather depleted, especially after Britain’s deep recession.

Conservatives are exhausted, too, after four failed leaders in a row. The new Tory standard-bearer, David Cameron, has pulled the party away from the harshness of Thatcherism and given it a fresh, more moderate face.

In the United States, the two major parties are far from exhausted. They are invigorated. The Democrats are enjoying control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994, and they are determined to act as a governing party. Republicans were briefly demoralized after losing in 2008, but the wave of populist opposition to President Obama’s agenda has revived them.

Britain has always had a stronger ideological Left than the United States, but it seems to have lost its edge after governing for so long. The U.S. has always had a stronger ideological Right, and it is behaving as though George W. Bush never existed.