Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.
Jonathan Chait rightly goes to town:
A more realistic analysis holds that the South’s post-Civil War racial Apartheid system created a highly unusual arrangement in which political parties were not sorted out ideologically—some of the most right-wing members of Congress were Democrats, and many progressives were Republicans. In that atmosphere, party ties had a very weak hold on individual members, especially Senators. Thus it was possible for social norms to encourage cooperation and limit the use of the filibuster to very rare occasions, usually involving civil rights.
I am similarly mystified by this belief that the problems in our political system can somehow be solved by the “right” leaders—the ones who are expected to hue to some golden mean on every dimension: passionate and yet calm, having strong principles but yet still willing to compromise, etc., etc. “Leaders ready to lead,” says Broder. Packer seems also to buy into the notion that once we had “great” Senators and now we don’t:
Ira Shapiro, the former aide, who is writing a book about the Senate of the sixties and seventies, said, “It was a huge loss of the most experienced, accomplished senators being replaced by neophytes. All of a sudden, in 1981, more than half the Senate had been there less than six years.” He added, “The shattering of the great Senate has long-term effects that keep showing up. It gets worse over time, but it just never gets restored.
Blaming bad leaders gets the causes of the Senate’s challenges wrong. Chait and Jon Bernstein are right to pinpoint very different factors. Senate Democrats and Republicans—like their counterparts in the House—don’t agree on much, thanks to ideological sorting and polarization, and, like most people who don’t agree on much, they use whatever tricks they can to get their way. In the Senate, that means holds or denying unanimous consent or filibusters or whatever.
Chait shows a chart of the sharp increase in cloture voting. Here’s another one: the ideological position of the median Senator in each party from 1879-2008 (the 46th-110th Congresses):
There are three things to note in that chart. First, as Chait suggests in the quote above, and Brendan Nyhan has also noted, the era of unpolarized parties is the exception and for the reasons Chait suggests. Polarization is the norm.
Second, there is little support for Packer’s argument that the good Senators were replaced with the bad (conservative) ones, something he traces to an alleged turning point in 1978:
The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today
That date does not coincide with any sharp increase in polarization.
A third point is an implication. In an era of polarized parties, it makes even less sense to yearn for “leaders ready to lead.” The “leaders” in the Senate don’t float down from the ceiling, bathed in golden light. They are elected by their respective parties. In an era where the parties are ideologically far apart, guess what they want from their leaders? A willingness to fight for what the party stands for.
Take Packer’s story of the temporary collaboration between Bob Corker and Mark Warner on financial reform. Here are two guys, somewhat moderate, apparently nice, got excited about policy, worked in good faith with each other, got a bill to the full committee. Leaders ready to lead! But then after a month, Dodd pulls the plug on negotiations, thinking no compromise will earn Republican votes. Corker is mad. When the bill gets out of committee, McConnell repudiates it anyway, even though it still contains Corker’s work. Corker himself initially speaks out on the floor in favor of further bargaining and compromise, but then votes for an amendment that would strike the very provisions he and Warner had worked on and ultimately votes against the bill.
This is how partisan polarization and the institutional norms it helps create make short shrift of “leaders ready to lead.”
Blaming leaders also gets the possible solutions to the Senate’s challenges wrong. I find this faith in “leaders who are ready to lead” completely child-like. When my two-year-old can’t do something, he cries and says “Daddy, I can’t do it! Help! Help!” He expects me—all-powerful Daddy—to swoop in and fix things.
Politics doesn’t work how two-year-olds think the world works. In fact, adults typically realize that few domains of life work like my son wants it to. You don’t fix institutions by finding perfect people to inhabit them. Even if such people existed, who is to say that they wouldn’t themselves be rendered imperfect by the institution itself? So you change the rules. You design better institutions.
Madison knew this, even if pundits can’t seem to remember their Federalist papers. You don’t even have to go beyond the one or two that thousands of college freshmen read every year. Here is Madison in Federalist 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
He’s defending the separation of powers, not the Senate, of course. But the point stands: we take it on faith that men are not angels, that leaders are always going to be driven by their own interests. That’s why we’re not two-year-olds. Then we design the institution accordingly.
What the rules should be in the contemporary Senate is an open question. But that’s what people who want a more functional Senate should be talking about. Not wishing for angels.