Can One Party Rule?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

OUR OLD-FASHIONED inclination would be to wait for the election before discussing its results. But since Republican presidential nominee John McCain has introduced the specter of Democratic control as an argument in his favor, it seems reasonable to examine the case. Should voters choose Mr. McCain over Democrat Barack Obama so as not to empower the Obama-Reid-Pelosi triumvirate that Mr. McCain paints in such ominous shades? Alternatively, as some down-ballot Republicans are urging, should voters stick with GOP senators or members of Congress to keep a President Obama in check?

For true partisans of either stripe, there's no quandary here. Most true-blue Democrats would be delighted to see their party in charge of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, though some worry that subsequent overreaching might harm the party in the long run. Most true-red Republicans have mirror-image feelings. So the question is most pertinent for centrists and independent voters, who tend to have contradictory emotions. On the one hand, they bemoan gridlock in Washington and would like government finally to come up with answers on some big issues such as health care and energy. On the other hand, they worry about what those answers would be if formulated by one party alone.

We worry, too, though we support Mr. Obama even knowing the result may be one-party rule. A political theorist might root for the Democrats to win the White House, a 60-vote majority in the Senate and a clear majority in the House. Then voters could find out what the Democrats really stand for and render a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in two and four years -- just as they passed judgment in 2006 on the one-party rule (though short of 60-vote control in the Senate) of Tom DeLay, Ted Stevens and George W. Bush.

But we don't believe either party has a monopoly on policy wisdom. We liked Mr. Bush's insistence on accountability in education, tempered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's reminder that you couldn't fix urban schools without some money. We don't support the Democrats' plan to allow unionization without secret ballots, but we agree with them that National Labor Relations Board rules have tipped too far toward management. And so on. We like to think, in other words, that a process in which both parties play a role can sometimes lead to better outcomes and not always to dead ends.

That's harder to imagine, though, as each party's moderate wing shrinks. A Democratic sweep might bring to Washington some relatively centrist freshmen who would provide a check on the most liberal wing of the party. But it might claim as victims some of the few remaining Republican moderates, such as Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and some of the real workhorses who are more interested in legislating than grandstanding -- the capable New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu, for example. The defeat of such politicians would be a loss for the country, not just for their party.

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