Over the past 30 years, there has been an inexorable growth of party-line politics in Washington. Where crossing party lines was once an accepted and routine part of congressional practice, it is now almost as rare as in a parliamentary government, where massive defections on any issue could bring down the government.
The growth of party-line voting reflects a parallel tendency to nationalize congressional elections, a trend that dates back to Newt Gingrich's revolution of 1994, in which he wrested control of both houses from the Democrats. Until Gingrich, the maxim of his predecessor Tip O'Neill that "all politics is local" was the order of the day.
But national funding of political campaigns, central discipline over political consultants by party apparatchiks, partisan control over reapportionment and the nationalization of congressional issues have enforced a conformity on candidates from both parties, which makes them little more than local stand-ins for the national party.
All this is terribly convenient when your party is awash in good times. The money rolls in while you run in your comfortably gerrymandered district, advised by spin doctors who are adept at putting the party line out in ever more artful ways and are especially trained by the national party at eviscerating an opponent with negative ads.
But in bad times, the party's ties bind too closely. They restrict a Republican candidate's ability to run to the left or a Democrat's to move to the right to avert defeat in a partisan landslide. The party discipline makes maneuver impossible and forces the incumbent to hunker down in his partisan fortress and hope that he can defeat the barbarians at the gates.
For the first time since the Gingrich revolution, the Republican Party is facing massive defeat. Will its congressmen and senators go down in the upcoming 2006 elections like the Democratic lemmings did in 1994, faithfully parroting their president's dogma while they sank below the horizon? Or will they have the dexterity and flexibility to move to the center and the left to meet the coming onslaught?
The only way for a Republican to survive in 2006 is to run like a Democrat. The GOP line on oil companies totally misses the fact that voters see a vast conspiracy by big oil companies to manipulate the price to feather their own nests. All talk of supply increase or demand decrease is quite beside the point for the average voter. The issue is whether or not you are part of the conspiracy to fix and raise prices.
The Republican position on climate change — that it isn't happening or, if it is, it's inevitable — also completely misses the views of the average voter who sees hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and such as the consequence of years of air pollution.
The GOP wisdom on Iraq also fails to address the underlying isolationism that is catalyzing opposition to the war. Instead of searching for a decent way out, most voters are just disgusted with the party that landed us in this no-win situation.
Taken together, the only way for a Republican to survive 2006 is to shed himself of his party ideology and run like a Democrat, using the entire playing field — left, center and right — to address voter concerns.
But is the Republican Party able to allow its candidates the doctrinal freedom to do so? Will its donors permit such heresy? Are its consultants wise enough in the ways of the center to bring their clients over from right field? Will the administration allow apostasy?
Lately some have suggested that candidates use local issues to survive. But the wisdom of Tip O'Neill will not save a party that has convinced the nation that Gingrich was right — that congressional races are national, not local. It is only by moving to the center and the left that the congressional Republican Party can respond to the massive voter anger its candidates encounter at every turn.
Unless the harness of party discipline loosens, GOP congressmen and senators will go, in step, over the cliff.