Congressional Old Guard Retires, Leaving Calcified Partisanship in Place
Congressional Old Guard Retires, Leaving Calcified Partisanship in Place

by Jules Witcover

The trend of abandoning Congress continues as its longest-serving member, Democratic Rep. John Dingell Jr. of Michigan, former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has announced he will retire. He is going out with a bang, remarking that he finds "serving in the House to be obnoxious" given its members' inability to work across party lines.

The 87-year-old legislative expert, winding up 58 years of service, also cited President Obama's recent pivot to the use of executive orders to achieve what he can't get through Congress. Referring to the dictionary, he noted that "Congress means coming together," the great coming together of the American people, adding: "Compromise is an honorable word."

Dingell is the 21st member of the House -- 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans -- to announce they will quit at the end of this session, making their decisions one of the rare acts of bipartisanship seen these days on Capitol Hill.

The current plague of party politics infecting Washington echoes a warning going back to the writing of the Constitution. Prominent founding fathers repeatedly deplored then the possibility of the political community breaking up into "factions" based on ideology or differing objectives.

At the time, the dichotomy was already surfacing between the leaders favoring a strong central government, calling themselves Federalists, and advocates of power residing in the newly formed states, first known only as Anti-Federalists.

The first president, George Washington, was uniformly agreed upon to be above any faction. But the emerging leader of the Anti-Federalists, Thomas Jefferson, was originally so opposed to party alliance of any sort that he once proclaimed: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go at all."

Nevertheless, he ultimately became the driving force creating what he first called the Republican, then the Democratic-Republican Party, which became the Democratic Party. Two centuries later, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was moved to observe:

"The quadrennial presidential contest served, after Washington's retirement, both as an inescapable focus for national party competition and as a powerful incentive to national party organization. Even Jefferson soon decided that, with the right party, he would be willing to go, if not to heaven, at least to the White House." Which, of course, he did in 1801.

Thereafter, and down through the history of the Republic, party politics reigned, providing the umbrellas under which the continuing battle for national leadership, as well as in the states and most counties and municipalities, has been waged.

On the national level at least, the party system of Democrats and Republicans has been solidified, with only occasional and largely unsuccessful intrusion, by short-lived independent or spinoff parties rebelling against the existing "factions."

The first major breach came in the long run-up to the Civil War, when the then old Federalists hoisted a new Whig banner before the appearance of the Republican Party in 1856 and in 1860 under Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, the Jefferson-Jackson Democrats split, as "war Democrats" joined Lincoln's fusion Union Party for the duration of the conflict.

In 1912, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt broke with his party and ran as the Progressive or Bull Moose Party nominee, but succeeded only in facilitating the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1968 and again in 1972, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama ran and lost on an independent slate; in 1992 Texas businessman Ross Perot formed his own Reform Party, and in 1996 former Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan was its nominee, but both lost.

In 2000, consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran and lost on a third-party slate, but won enough votes in Florida that, had they gone to Democratic nominee Al Gore, as exit polls suggested, he would have been elected over Republican George W. Bush.

In all this, the founding fathers were prescient in their warning about the dangers inherent in the formation of political "factions." Yet the development of parties was inevitable as the realities of conflicting views within competitive political forces emerged, and our politics eventually evolved into the dominant two-party system. And John Dingell's reminder that compromise is the essential element if Congress is to work seems more relevant and imperative than ever.




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Congressional Old Guard Retires, Leaving Calcified Partisanship in Place