Political parties got off on the wrong foot in America. The Framers notoriously distrusted the English parliamentary parties, and made no provision for them in the Constitution ratified in 1788.

Neither John Adams nor Thomas Jefferson – after George Washington the leading lights of the Revolution – wanted to become party leaders, even though they effectively founded the Federalists and Republicans – confusingly, to modern ears, as Jeffersonians were known before becoming Democrats.

The Federalists soon died out, except in New England, to be replaced by the Whigs and, in the 1850s, the neo-Republicans: the durable two-party system we know today. All other party ventures have been trivial, short-lived or associated with a particular candidate; despite continued distaste for “partisanship” there’s no likelihood of replacement.

Apart from continuing unease with the very idea of parties, there’s also a fundamental misunderstanding, one that has become virulent and self-defeating in our own times.

The fact is, the two major parties have never been solely or successfully ideological, unlike the multiplicity of parties in France, Italy or Israel. Politics here “works” only when both parties are willing to cooperate, however grudgingly, on big issues.

It’s rare that major legislation passes on fully partisan votes, yet now, it’s almost holy writ that President-elect Biden can’t “do anything” unless Democrats win both Georgia Senate seats on Jan. 5 – an unlikely prospect.

The misconception extends to pundits’ excoriation of voters for the choices they make. That Maine voters chose Biden over Trump but not fellow Democrat Sara Gideon over Republican Susan Collins, we are told, was “irrational,” or that voters must have been “distracted.”

This is baloney. Voters choose between candidates, and their collective choices make up the legislative bodies of federal and state governments. No one “votes for” dividing the government and, throughout our history, “divided government” is the rule, not the exception.

Democrats, in particular, seem addicted to the false belief that unless they control the presidency, House and Senate, Republicans can block their entire agenda.

Anyone who believes that a Biden-backed pandemic bill, well-drafted and reasonable, will pass the House, followed by Mitch McConnell denying a vote isn’t in the reality zone. A national emergency demands action, and ever-rising virus numbers will force action, whoever’s in charge.

Defying the public is never good politics, no matter which party you belong to, or even if you belong to none.

So what accounts for the results on Nov. 3, unpredicted by polls, which saw numerous “threatened” GOP incumbents, like Colllins, win re-election? It all goes back to who’s running, and how voters make up their minds in a process that looks simple, but isn’t.

Gideon wasn’t the best candidate Democrats could have offered; that would have been been Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who didn’t run. It’s not easy to beat an incumbent senator in Maine here, but the three times it happened – with Ed Muskie in 1958, Bill Hathaway in 1972 and Bill Cohen in 1978 – a governor or House member did it.

The legislative office of House speaker, especially since term limits, has been politically negligible, but national Democrats decided that, with $100 million or so, they could build a credible candidacy.

They did the same thing in Kentucky, with a fighter pilot; in South Carolina, with a champion party fundraiser; in Iowa, with a businesswoman without political experience; and in Kansas, with a former Republican state legislator who’d switched to Democrat in 2018. None came close to winning.

The reality is that while enormous amounts of cash – Gideon outraised Collins 3-1 down the stretch – can get any candidate on voters’ minds, they still have to show why they’d be an improvement over the incumbent.

Gideon’s campaign was based almost entirely on the idea that Collins had “lost touch” with Mainers, without presenting any convincing brief about her own skills and vision in a national context. Nine times out of 10, that won’t work.

We’re already hearing that Democrats will lose congressional seats in 2022, despite not having finished counting the 2020 ballots, because it “always happens” to the party holding the presidency. It doesn’t, and may be even less likely this time, depending on how Biden begins.

If a new administration can master the coronavirus surge and restore order after Donald Trump’s inept and deceitful performance, it will do more for Democrats’ fortunes than any amount of money, polling or “messaging.” And it will also be what the country needs.

Democrats and Republicans will likely always be with us. Yet the era of bipartisan do-nothing may be coming to an end. The parties may be forced, by grim necessity, to start working together.

 

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 36 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

 

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