Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Lost Collegiality

Something that the older pundits have been lamenting with the death of President Ford is the loss of the collegiality that existed between the parties in Ford's time. Grated that today's politics are very polarized but a lot of things have changed in the last 30 years. These include:

A balance of power. During Ford's administration the Democrats had a 125 seat majority in the House and a solid majority in the Senate. There wasn't much that Republicans could do so there was no sense fighting over most issues. The Democrats could afford to toss the Republicans a few crumbs since they didn't have any real power. Even when Ford issued his frequent vetoes (more than any other president) he could be overridden. 25 of his vetoes were overridden.

Today the Democrats have a very narrow majority in the House and a single-vote majority in the Senate. Even when the Republicans were in the majority they never enjoyed the overwhelming majorities that the Democrats had post-Watergate.

Non-aligned parties. The parties were in the midst of new alignments. Republicans were generally conservative but not always. Some were downright liberal. at the same time, many Democrats were conservative. The south was solidly Democrat but often voted conservative. This was a left-over from the Civil War and Reconstruction. As late as the 1970s, many southerners could not bring themselves to vote for the party of Lincoln.

This was changing. The 1972 Presidential race cemented the Democrats as the party of blacks, feminists, and other special interest groups. Certain issues such as the ERA and beig pro-abortion became mandatory. Some of the older mainstream Democrats felt crowded out by the new crew.

Reagan's primary run in 1976 and his election in 1980 inaugurated the conservative/libertarian/religious alliance that became Republican mainstream. Several Democrats switches sides over the next several years. Eventually the South went from solidly Democrat to solidly Republican.

Rose-tinted Hindsight. While I don't have the close-hand experiences of George Will to judge by, there was plenty of animosity. After Ford pardoned Nixon, the Democrats held investigations into a possible deal. Many were frustrated at not being able to impeach Nixon and wanted to impeach Ford as a proxy. I already mentioned the record number of vetoes and overrides.

The collegiality was supposed to have continued on into the Carter administration but that began with an ugly fight over the Panama Canal. This was so hard-fought that the vote was carried live on network TV. In all seriousness, I'm not sure that Iraq has ignited as much general passion in Congress as the Canal.

The easing of the Cold War by both Ford and Carter also aroused strong emotions in both parties, especially Republicans.

I think that, in general, the parties may have been more polite to each other and members may have mixed more freely but that was more veneer than reality.

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