The party’s not over

Why is lawmaking getting more partisan than the voters?

Washoe Sen. William Raggio, at the Nevada Legislature last year, when he was still Republican leader.

Washoe Sen. William Raggio, at the Nevada Legislature last year, when he was still Republican leader.


“Horsford is just going to be looking at the next office he runs for,” said a prominent Democrat. “Nothing will get done.”

The comment was made at a reception following a memorial service for community activist Pat Fladager in Reno two days after the election. At such events around the area last week, politics was a prime topic, and one theme has run through all of them—a profound weariness with partisanship in politics.

The comment about Sen. Steven Horsford, the Democratic floor leader in the Nevada Senate, was typical. The Democrat at Fladager’s memorial said he wanted the Nevada Legislature to get serious about repairing the state’s tax structure as one step in rebuilding the Nevada economy, but he knew it wouldn’t happen because legislators will be either unwilling to offend the loudest groups in politics or preoccupied with planning for the next offices they will seek.

“I just don’t think they are really there for the right reasons,” the Democrat said.

At the Fladager event and at a later gathering for new inductees in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, a principal topic was Washoe Sen. William Raggio being deposed as Republican floor leader of the Senate following his half-hearted endorsement of Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s reelection.

Raggio stepped down as leader amid assumptions that he had to either jump or be pushed because his critics in the Senate GOP caucus had gathered enough votes to replace him. Penalizing Raggio tended to confirm the reputation of many Republicans as intransigent and also was self-defeating for GOP conservatives.

As party floor leader, Raggio would have been subject to the caucus’s dictates. Now, he is a free agent while most GOP caucus members consider themselves bound by dogma. Three Republicans are believed to have opposed the move to dump him. With support from them, he can freely do what the Republicans who unseated him are unwilling to do—work with the majority Democrats and Governor-elect Brian Sandoval to fashion compromises. By cutting Raggio loose, the Senate Republican caucus empowered him.

At the Nevada Writers event, a leading lobbyist said, “When Sandoval wants votes, you know darn well he’s going to be on the phone to Raggio.” Generally, it’s believed that the only votes Raggio’s critics control are their own.

When one former senator at the same event heard the news that Raggio had been removed as GOP leader, he looked puzzled, then said, “Well, that was dumb.”

He was even more surprised when he heard the Republican caucus had let Raggio step down from the Senate Finance Committee, where he has served for decades and which he has usually chaired.

“Bill and I didn’t always agree,” the former senator said. “But he knows everything about the budget. They’ll spend a long time getting others up to speed on it.”

He shook his head at the notion that politics outside the legislative process would intrude inside the legislature. Another person at the Nevada Writers event observed, “You’d think that the election results, in Nevada anyway, would send a message that they [voters] want to curb extremism. Going after a moderate doesn’t do it—and besides, what’s Reid and Angle got to do with the legislature?”

The Nevada Legislature is slowly becoming more like the U.S. Congress, where partisanship is becoming more pronounced as the nation becomes less partisan. This year, 171,842 Nevadans were registered to vote as non-partisans. That’s more than a third of the total number of registered voters and would probably have been higher except for the problem of non-partisans being unable to vote for most offices in primary elections. Opinion surveys show even higher rates of no party allegiance. Meanwhile, in Congress and increasingly in the Nevada Legislature, party discipline is enforced in ways that seem antiquated to ordinary voters.

In fact, in Congress there is growing sentiment among Republicans not to work with Democrats at all. GOP members willing to accommodate Democrats—such as Sen. Lindsay Graham on climate issues—are treated as disloyal. After the election, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana said, “I don’t think the American people are electing a new generation to Washington, D.C., in the hopes that Congress and the White House can get along better.” Pence (supposedly the model for “Roger Sterling” on the television series Mad Men) stepped down last week as House Republican Conference chair. Although 78 percent told New York Times/CBS pollsters that Republicans should “compromise some of their positions to get things done” (15 percent said they should “stick to their positions”), Pence said he will counsel newcomers to Congress against “this attitude that … somehow the message of the election was that they want Democrats and Republicans to work better together, to get along—good heavens.”

In the populace, those kinds of sentiments are usually found only among the politically active, as at a Republican rally featuring Sarah Palin in Reno last month. “They keep saying they want to work together,” said one audience member. “And every time they do, we get screwed.”

Such sentiments run headlong into Democratic expressions of a willingness to work with the GOP, as with Reid’s election night comment, “I’m hopeful and confident that when the dust settles, the Republicans will no longer want to stop everything, and we’ll work together.”

But Congressional Democrats, too, feel more strongly about party than the voters, though they don’t let it interfere with working with Republicans. Bills die at Democratic hands because they come with GOP sponsorship, for instance, something that also happens in the Nevada Legislature.

The same former senator who attended the Nevada Writers event has previously said that when he returned to the legislature after several years away, he was startled by the growing power of the party caucuses, of the way they meet constantly and dictate policy to leaders. “I’m not sure we ever had a caucus meeting while I was there,” he said.

Former Nevada Assembly speaker Byron Bilyeu said he doesn’t know why lawmaking is becoming more partisan at a time when the public is becoming less so.

“Political parties have diminished in strength over the years because they no longer have political appointments to pass out, they don’t have much patronage,” he said. “And so what do the political parties represent? … A vehicle to raise money.”

“Our society’s changed,” he said. “People are acting through media or groups like veterans groups.” He pointed to “the rise of guys like Rush Limbaugh who articulated for people out there who feel they have no voice in the parties.”

One factor that creates greater partisanship is the practice of national Democratic and Republican party committees that deliberately target moderates in the opposite party on the theory that they’re easier to beat, even though it means defeating their own ideological allies in the other party and making it harder to govern. As the moderates disappear, the ability of the increasingly polarized parties to work together does, too.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist David Damore said he thinks there are two reasons for the growing partisanship in Congress.

“Everybody now is afraid of a primary challenge,” he said, pointing to party leaders who threaten their own party members. “Look at Tom Delay. One of his tactics was to threaten a primary challenge. The Club for Growth is likely to fund a challenge if you don’t vote right. … The other part is, the people who give the money and put in the time are very ideological. … You don’t have the middle anymore.”

Bilyeu said there were incidents like the Raggio removal in earlier years. He said liberal Republican legislator Jean Ford was rejected for a role in the Nevada Republican presidential contest between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976.

“But the difference was when those things happened, there was not as much vitriol, not as much anger. When it was over we could still be friends.”