National Review’s Jay Nordlinger asks, “Should one party, and only one party, impose a new regime of health care on the country — even if that party has the votes, however narrowly? This would be a tremendously big change. Something like a consensus may be appropriate.” I guess it depends on what he means by “consensus.”
First of all, there are (effectively) sixty Democratic Senators. That’s about what FDR had in his first term, and not a lot less than what LBJ had in his full term, and no one really questions the notion that there was a consensus for the New Deal or the Great Society (or at least Medicare). Some 36 states have at least one Democratic Senator, and they tend to be the more populous states. If folks in California don’t like being represented by a bunch of Democrats, they’re free to vote with their feet and move to Texas, right? Matt Yglesias harps on this kind of thing a lot: given that every state has an equal vote in the Senate, the small states are over-represented. The same is even true in the House, since every state gets at least one vote there, although the disparity isn’t quite as great.
My point here is that there is a 60-40 split in the Senate, and a 257-178 (or about 60-40) split in the House, and even those large majorities are somewhat skewed by the way the state delegations are parceled. If 60-40 isn’t a consensus, where is the threshold?
First, I realize that the health care reform bills under consideration probably won’t get sixty votes. I’m not saying there is or is not a consensus for a specific proposal; I’m only wondering how one would define it.
Second, I also realize that one party could win a lot of 51-49 elections and wind up with 60% of the seats. I have three responses to this. One, see above regarding the skewed and undemocratic state delegation divisions. Someone like Nate Silver probably has the numbers on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Democrats got close to 60% of the votes in 2008. That would mitigate, to a degree, any unfairness in several 51-49 victories translating to a 60-40 legislative edge. Two, see above regarding voting with one’s feet. If that many elections are that close, a few people moving could swing things back. Three, not all sixty Democrats are identical. The type of candidate who squeaks out a 51-49 win is going to vote against the party leaders some of the time, and will in turn pull the party towards the middle. This is what we’re seeing with the Blue Dogs. So, even in a situation where a bunch of 51-49 wins leads to a 60-40 party division in the legislature, the majority party is going to end up governing much more like a 55-45 or so party. All in all, the concern that an array of close elections flukily turned into a phony supermajority is, I think, overblown.
Third, we need to remember the difference between a consensus and a mandate. Even if having the presidency and 60% of the legislature in one party’s hands doesn’t constitute a consensus, it could very well constitute a mandate if those people ran and were elected on a platform, like a platform to reform health care. And it’s not as if John McCain ran on an “anti-health care” platform, either. Is it safe to say that voters who care strongly about health care reform voted for Democrats by decent majorities? Why isn’t that the consensus that matters?
Fourth, what other “tremendously big change[s]” would require consensus, in Nordlinger’s opinion? Going to war? Legalizing gay marriage? I’m genuinely curious. (Of course, for Nordlinger and the NR crowd, the whole idea is to have the bar set very high — “standing athwart history yelling stop” and all that.) I’m not opposed to the general idea that society and democracy are better served when there is a consensus for major developments, and it saves us the trouble of constant back-and-forths when the political winds blow. But I don’t think it should be a requirement or even a moral imperative. We do, after all, have a system of majority rule. Sometimes you’re in the 51, sometimes you’re in the 49. The good news is that it’s not as hard to flip that quotient; it’s much harder to turn the tide against a full-blown consensus. One who demands consensus votes should be careful what one wishes for — if you demand a consensus and lose, you’ve lost the battle and the war.