Rupert Cornwell: It's not just the Tea Party that's turned US politics into an absurdity

The collapse of the old Republican centre, the decline of compromise, and the rise of partisanship has turned every legislative debate into trench warfare

Saturday 18 September 2010 00:00

Boy it's going to be fun. Complain all you like about the iniquities of the first-past-the-post system used in Britain and the US. It does at least produce rip-roaring election nights, fought out seat by seat, state by state, candidate by candidate – unlike worthy but oh-so-dreary PR, when the first percentage estimate of the national vote comes in, and basically that's it. And, in this year of the Tea Party, America's mid-term election night on 2 November is going to be a cracker.

The message of the primary season, which produced new upsets this week, is that more big names will tumble, and that garish outsiders will be sent to Washington, maybe even the ludicrously unqualified Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, catapulted to celebrity by a Sarah Palin tweet, to fill Joe Biden's old Senate seat. I even have a book title waiting, to sum it up: "Were You Still Up For Harry Reid?"

Let me explain. A dozen or so years ago, Brian Cathcart, an esteemed former colleague on this newspaper, wrote Were You Still Up For Portillo?, referring to the 3am defeat of the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo that set the seal on New Labour's rout of the Tories in 1997. This November, in what could be an almost equal rout for Democrats, the biggest single potential scalp for Republicans is that of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, out in Nevada, at the hands of Sharron Angle.

She is a Tea Party-endorsed lady who proclaims that her candidacy is a mission from God, and advocates, inter alia, US withdrawal from the UN and the abolition of the entire federal tax code. The contest is close, and results from Nevada will be among the last of the night. But Republicans on the East Coast who do sit up long enough could see this historic orgy of throwing the bums out capped by the downfall of one of the three or four highest-ranking Democrats in the land. If so, I'll get the book-printing presses rolling, and we can all brace ourselves for Palin 2012. Now, alas, I must get serious.

The source of the disaffection of American voters that threatens to provoke this earthquake, just two years after Barack Obama was walking on water, has been much written about and is pretty obvious – the miserable economy combined with a dark and widespread sense that the system which once delivered ever rising prosperity no longer works. Equally analysed has been the likely line-up of forces in the 112th Congress which convenes next January.

The pundits' consensus is that the Republicans will win back the House of Representatives, perhaps even with a landslide to match 1994, the year of the Newt Gingrich revolution that had then President Bill Clinton plaintively insisting that his office was still "relevant" to the nation's government. But the Democrats now may just cling on to the Senate, not least because of O'Donnell's triumph in Delaware. When even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Karl Rove calls her "nutty", her credentials must be in doubt. Either way, the conventional wisdom is that she is unelectable in a seat which, until she won the this week's Republican primary, Democrats had virtually written off. We shall see, however. This has not been a great year for conventional wisdom.

What hasn't been written about much though are the consequences for America's already semi-dysfunctional politics when the election night thrills and spills are over. The almost guaranteed answer is that, if all goes as expected on 2 November, they're going to become more dysfunctional still. The reality is that grassroots insurgencies against the establishment are nothing new in US politics, and the Tea Party movement is merely the latest of them. The real problem is a system that has been tweaked, fiddled and gerry-mandered to the point of near-unworkability. Bear with me as I explain.

First off, America simply has too many elections. In the rest of the democratic world, four years, sometimes five, is the normal life of a Parliament or a Presidential term. But not here. It is absurd that a new House of Representatives is chosen every two years. This means that from the moment he or she is elected, a member of Congress must instantly start devoting time and energy to fundraising, in a system where there is no public financing of elections, to ensure an equal playing field for all.

Understandably, the state legislatures who decide Congressional districts have tried to remove some of the uncertainty from proceedings by re-drawing districts to make them safer for incumbents. A Democratic state legislature will naturally try and fix things for Democrats. A Republican-controlled one will try to create more safe Republican seats. In short, American politics have evolved close to a point where, instead of voters choosing their politicians, politicians choose their voters.

So, increasingly, the best chance those voters have of changing their representatives is not at the general election, when the result is more often than not a foregone conclusion, but in the party primary – when turnout is low, sometimes tiny, and a disproportionate number of voters are highly motivated activists, such as Tea Party enthusiasts now. This is especially true of Republicans, and it is precisely what has happened in 2010, in places like Delaware and Nevada.

But the impact is not only local. It has been shifting the entire balance of the Republican Party to the right. An incumbent has two choices. Either he bows to the prevailing wind (as did a newly conservative John McCain in his Arizona Senate primary last month) or – like once-popular centrist Mike Castle in Delaware – he is defeated by someone like Christine O'Donnell.

For Republicans who survive this winnowing, the lesson is obvious: There, but for the grace of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, and the right-wing talk show hosts, go I. They become more conservative, eschewing co-operation with Democrats, for fear of attracting the dread label of RINO, Republican In Name Only. In this climate even Karl Rove becomes a voice of moderation and sweet reason.

This trend has been apparent for many years. It has led to the collapse of the old Republican centre, the decline of compromise, the rise of partisanship that has turned every legislative debate into trench warfare. Throw into this mix the Senate filibuster, ever more frequently used and which allows a minority of 41 to block the will of a majority of 59, and you have a recipe for permanent gridlock. Do not complain that Obama has done too little; the miracle is that, under these circumstances, he has done as much as he has.

If 2 November turns out as expected, he will be able to do even less. Irrespective of whether Republicans win both House and Senate, they will become more conservative, more intransigent. But who cares? It will have been a terrific night on TV. And if you get fed up with the stalemate thereafter, do not despair. Another smashing election night in 2012 is less than two years away.

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