Party Leadership

Party Leadership


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Historically political parties in democracies have not been ideologically pure. They have party platforms, but the actual views of party members and office holders run a broad gamut on most issues. Such differences or even deviations are generally tolerated within a large party tent. Party allegiance is usually sought only on key, principled votes. Even then some legislators break with their party.

In the British Parliament, for example, as recently as today’s Brexit vote, Members of Theresa May’s Conservative Party broke ranks and voted against their own Prime Minister. In Britain, there is long standing tradition of different types of “whips” which demand differing types of party allegiance. Free votes, for example permit MP’s in England—where party discipline is much more seriously observed—to vote their conscience with none or limited political consequences.

In the U.S. both the Democratic as well as the Republican Parties until as recently as the 21st Century were composed of very strange bedfellows. Southern racist Democrats and their Northern liberal colleagues, at one point, voted together on many issues and broke on others; but the party lived with it. Similarly, moderate Republicans largely from the East and more conservative ones from the mid-West broke ranks on some votes and hung together on others. Members split on the Viet Nam War, on civil rights, and on the cold war.

In 2019 the situation is different and causing problems for both parties. Republican Senators are now facing retribution if they break ranks and vote against President Trump’s invocation of emergency powers to reallocate funds to build his border wall. Whether there will truly be consequences in legislative races in 2020 will not be seen for a while.

For the Democrats, the party leadership also wants to avoid seeing its Members break ranks.  Once it was decided to have a floor vote on the anti-Semitism resolution last week, the Speaker should have forced the issue and not let it become diluted into a universal anti-bigotry resolution. Considering the fact that most observers consider Nancy Pelosi to be the smartest politician in Washington today, if she wanted to bring the matter to a vote, she should have let the defecting Members take their lumps. Those who did not support a clean resolution opposing anti-Semitic speech would be on record; in both parties. Pelosi also would have had to deal with possibly alienating some of the party’s emerging progressive wing.

Policing a Member does not need to be done by resolution. (The Republican leadership should have addressed Representative Steve King’s white nationalism in their own caucus.) The Democrats were correct in not specifically singling out Representative Ilhan Omar.  Yet, as far as Omar is concerned, Pelosi and the Democratic leaders would have been much more effective if they gave her warning in the caucus as to the consequences if there are further anti-Semitic smears.

Pelosi got a relatively innocuous resolution passed and embarrassed 23 Republicans who defected and opposed the resolution. At the same time, however, the Speaker alienated large segments of American Jews who felt she did not force Members to declare on the record whether they specifically opposed anti-Semitic speech.  She also gave the President the opportunity to attack the Democrats and create more polarization, without his being held accountable for his own bigotry.

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