(to the regular readers of this blog: this is a blog project for my polsci senior seminar in case you're wondering why I would post something like this. feel free to comment on it, but no derailing please. serious comments only. thanks)
16 November 2009
Morris P. Fiorina describes two ways in which the two major American political parties act. They either act as decentralized parties or responsible parties. By decentralized he means that there is not much party unity and that congressmen “blithely sacrifice general interests in their pursuit of particularistic constituency interests” (Fiorina). It was because of this that several political scientists believed that voting was not so much in favor of parties, but rather incumbents and their records and under this system no one was being held accountable for the failings in national politics. An example of such failure was the nonexistent party cohesion during the Carter administration that lead to congressmen being worried more about looking good for their constituents instead of backing the president and thus the complete breakdown of legislation resulting in the solving of very few national problems at the time. Therefore many political scientists supported the idea of responsible parties in which members of the parties would be unified and able to enact positive change behind a strong president of the same party (Fiorina). This became the case in 2000 when W. Bush was first elected to the presidency and even more so when his party gained several seats in Congress (and therefore more power) in 2002. In this essay, I am going to discuss the concept of responsible parties in modern politics by using three video clips from the C-SPAN Video Library to explain how each is an example of either the Democrats or the Republicans representing themselves as responsible parties.
The first video is a speech made by President George W. Bush in 2006. In it he expresses his support of amending the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.
This speech and his support of the bill was mostly symbolic (Fiorina). This means that the bill never really had a chance of passing into law and he most likely supported it because it was a good opportunity to express his support for the conservative ideological foundation that makes up a large portion of the Republican Party.
Bush gave this speech on June 5th, 2006 which was just a few months before the elections that restored majority power in both the House and the Senate to the Democrats (Democrats Retake Congress). Bush and other Republican leaders may have assumed that, as a result of declining numbers in both presidential and congressional ratings, various Republican congressmen stood to lose their jobs. This speech appears to have been an attempt to rally support for those Republicans congressmen and is therefore an example of the concept of responsible parties. Rather than remain ambiguous on the issue, he came out in support of his fellow Republicans when he did not really need to. In the selected portion of his speech he twice said something along the lines of taking power away from judges and giving it to the people. As an influential Republican figure he is trying to unite people to the Republican Party by referring to the public as “the American people” which comes off as patriotic. He is also trying to unite them against “activist”, or liberal, judges which represent the opposite ideology and presumably the opposite party in this case.
The second video is also just before the 2006 mid-term elections, but it is from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. In it House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi discusses some of the Democrats’ economic plans assuming they will win enough seats to become the majority party in Congress. I could not embed this video and the time frame that I am referencing is from 7:15 to 7:49. The link to the clip is http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/194679-1. The clip is short but it thoroughly demonstrates the Democratic side of the concept of responsible parties. Like Bush, Pelosi also explicitly refers to the people that she is talking about as Americans in attempt to unify them toward her cause. However, unlike Bush, Pelosi made it a point to call attention to how the Republican Party as a whole had in a sense failed the average, middle-class American. Bush somewhat attacked the liberal ideology and the Democrats by speaking about “activist judges”, but in this clip it is clear who Pelosi is trying to establish as the “villain” in attempt to put her party in power. She goes back and forth several times explaining how the actions of the Republicans have affected Americans in negative ways and how the Democrats plan to remedy the situation.
This is an example of responsible party politics because Nancy Pelosi is clearly trying to incite a positive attitude from the public in favor of her party and a negative perception of the other party. According to her, as a whole, the Democrats will do “this”, Republican’s will do “that”, and as Americans we want “this”. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders knew that in 2006 they had a very strong chance of winning the majority and understood that if they expressed themselves as a unified body, a responsible party, representing core values of Middle America, they would most likely win and they did.
The third video serves as a great relevant and recent example of responsible parties from both the Democrats and the Republicans. It is a clip from the debate and vote on the Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2009 and it clearly reveals the two opposing sides of the bill. The Democrats were in favor of it and the Republicans were opposed. The whole video is 872 minutes long, but the portion selected is of only two opposing representatives that I felt adequately displayed their party’s opposite stances on the issue.
The first person in this clip to speak is Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. His speech focuses on great Americans politicians throughout the 20th Century and how they would support the passing of this bill. Interestingly, he includes the recently deceased Senator Ted Kennedy who was a very influential and long time Democratic member of the Senate. Rep. Cohen most likely included Kennedy in his list of important figures as a means to bring Democrats together to support this legislation as Democrats currently have the majority in the House and the Senate and, with the added benefit of having a Democrat as President, they have a strong chance of passing this bill into law (at the time of this writing it has only passed the House). After Cohen’s list of important people he then goes on to explain how passing this bill will bring the United States into the 21st century. He notes that the U.S. has infant mortality rates similar to those of third world countries and claims that by passing this legislation that will no longer be the case. The tone of his speech (regarding modernizing America) is rather progressive which is typically representative of liberalism which is associated with the Democratic Party (Fiorina). He is attempting to unite the Democrats as being progressive in an attempt to pass this bill.
The second speech in the video is by Republican Rep. Jeff Miller. Immediately he seeks to accuse the Democrats of belittling average Americans in favor of gathering support for the Republican stance on the bill. His speech is very short and not so much factual as it is emotional. He ends with the claim that Americans want freedom and that the Democrat-sponsored bill will violate the freedoms of Americans if passed. Miller attempts unite people under the Republican Party with a core American value.
The bill passed with a vote of 220-215 with only 39 Democrats opposing the bill and only 1 Republican in favor of it (Karl et al). In this case, both parties represented responsible parties. While 39 Democrats opposed the bill, 180 of them followed party lines and passed it. They knew that as a responsible party they would have no obstacles in passing this legislation. On the other hand, Republicans were responsible as well. Only one of them voted in favor of it meaning that 175 united and voted against it. They most likely knew that since they represented an extreme minority in the House, they did not have a good chance of getting their way. But they came together as a responsible party, symbolically, as Bush did in my first clip. Perhaps this demonstrates that even in weak times, when their overall party organization and welfare has been questioned by the media, they are in fact strong, and if given the opportunity to become the majority again will act as a responsible party and pass legislation representing their party’s beliefs.
This essay has examined three video examples of the concept of responsible parties. The first was a speech by President W. Bush in which he gave symbolic support of a less-than-likely-to-pass amendment to the Constitution in order to demonstrate his allegiance to a responsible Republican Party. The second clip was of Nancy Pelosi just prior to the 2006 elections in attempt to gain the support of a unified, responsible Democratic Party that if in power, according to Pelosi, had the opportunity to right the wrongdoings of the Republicans and improve America. The third clip was of two congressmen of opposing ideologies supporting their party’s stance on the health care bill that recently passed the House. Both speeches represented the ideals of their respective parties and in the end both parties followed the responsible party model. The Democrats followed it to demonstrate that they do have the power to make the changes their party promised, and the Republicans followed it to show that even though their party has struggled in recent years, they are still strong.
C-SPAN Video Library. Web. http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/.
"Democrats Retake Congress." CNN.com - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2006/.
Fiorina, Morris P. Parties as Problem Solvers. Principles and Practice of American Politics. 4th ed. Washington DC: CQ. 611-24. Print.
Karl, Jonathan, Rachel Martin, and Teddy Davis. "Nancy Pelosi and Democrats Pass Sweeping Health Care Reform Bill in House, Now All Eyes on Senate." ABCNews.com - Breaking news, politics, online news, world news, feature stories, celebrity interviews and more. 8 Nov. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/nancy-pelosi-democrats-pass-sweeping-health-care-reform/story?id=9027367.
Sullivan, Andy. "Struggling Republicans to Pick New Party Chief." Reuters.com - World News, Financial News, Breaking US & International News. 29 Jan. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE50S10K20090129.