Last night in Indiana long time Republican incumbent senator Richard Lugar lost a primary challenge to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Thanks to the state’s “sore loser law” there is no way Lugar can win the election.
Lugar’s loss has basically guaranteed that the Republican senate caucus will be more unified, partisan and less compromising. At a minimum the Republicans lost the moderate Lugar, who was willing to reach deals. It is also likely that they will gain Mourdock, who has made it clear he supports an uncompromising legislative style. More important than just the replacement of one senator is that the primary has a real potential to make all other elected Republicans more fearful of bipartisanship.
This is just the latest development in the slow death of bipartisanship, but it is a death not to be mourned. There is nothing inherently good about bipartisanship and much deeply wrong with it.
Bipartisanship isn’t about allowing both parties to come together to pass wildly popular ideas. If something is actually wildly popular, one of the parties should be more than happy to pass it on a partisan basis to get the credit. Nor it about finding some magic “correct” solution that just always happens to be about halfway between the two parties’ positions. That is almost never the case, and if some new half way solution actually appeared to be clearly better, one of the parties should eventually adopt it.
What bipartisanship is mainly about is both parties working together to pass laws the public doesn’t want in a way that avoids any democratic accountability. Since we have only two parties, you can’t kick both of them out of office if they make a terrible decision together. In our zero sum politics if they are both equally bad, they effectively get a free pass on the issue. Those calling for bipartisan consensus to make the “tough decisions” are in reality calling for elected officials to defy the will of the electorate while protecting themselves from being held responsible for their actions.
It is the same democratic accountability destroying principle that is behind the calls for “unity governments” in Europe to force through unpopular austerity packages. By getting all the major parties to do the opposite of what voters want, the idea is that the voters will have no one else to turn to.
If it’s becoming much harder for politicians to avoid accountability for supporting a failed policy with the defense “both parties equally agreed to it,” that is good for democracy.