Government Spending

The Emerging Battle Between Political Outsiders and Insiders

Spending bill vote reveals a new political battle - not the left versus the right, but the edge versus the center


Last week, the House faced a momentary crisis as it attempted to pass a $1.1 spending bill—the "cromnibus," which combined 11 appropriations bills with a continuing resolution. Conservative Republicans objected because the spending bill did not stop President Obama's executive action on immigration; liberal Democrats, urged on by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opposed a tweak to derivatives regulation in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

White House support for the bill helped overcome last-minute Democratic objections, and the Republican leadership attempted to quell dissatisfaction on the right. The bill passed in the House, and moved on to the Senate, where it was backed by the Democratic leadership. Over the weekend, it passed, but not before first losing a chunk of Democratic support over the financial reform, and then facing an unexpected procedural delay from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who forced a vote signaling opposition to Obama's immigration move before allowing the spending bill to pass.

In the end 21 Senate Democrats and 18 Republicans joined together in opposition to the bill. The Democratic objectors were among the party's most liberal members; the Republicans some of the GOP's most conservative. And yet, despite their different objections, they were, in some sense working together—to defeat the bill and the wishes of the leadership of their own parties.

For years we have heard about increasing polarization in American politics and the growing divide between the left and the right. But the spending bill vote reveals another battle emerging—not the left versus the right, but the edge versus the center.

This split between the outside and the inside, between party leadership and party provocateurs, has emerged on numerous issues in recent years, many of which have national security implications. Outspoken legislators on the left and right have joined forces to oppose mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, as well as President Obama's ongoing use of drone strikes. President Obama's initial plans to launch airstrikes against Syria in the summer of 2013 were stymied by bipartisan pushback from Capitol Hill.

It's even possible to see a version of this dynamic at play in the fight over the Senate's report on the CIA's torture program. With a few exceptions, the politics since the release have been straightforwardly partisan, with Democrats in favor of release and Republicans opposed. But before the report was released, Democrats had to fight the Obama administration, which put up "fierce resistance" to its release, as one Senate aide told Foreign Policy. It was a struggle between the party's power center, and those on the outside of it.

Those sorts of messy internal dynamics are already common on the right, especially in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has spent the last four years attempting to organize an unruly caucus that has never been overly enthusiastic about falling in line behind party leadership. Under Boehner, votes to fund the government or raise the debt limit that in an earlier era would have sailed through with little controversy have consistently turned into legislative nail-biters, passing only at the last minute, and with the slimmest margins.

The split over the spending bill suggests that similar sorts of struggles are now more likely to appear on the left as well, as Democrats attempt to reorient and rethink their party's message and direction after a punishing midterm loss.

Indeed, the spending bill squabble, which arose out of liberal concern about the weakening of financial regulations, is only the latest and most prominent sign of the Democratic party's internal divisions. Even its biggest legislative victory in recent political history—the Affordable Care Act—has come up for self-criticism in recent weeks, with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) both expressing regret at the structure and timing of President Obama's signature legislation. A majority of Democrats in House races, meanwhile, didn't express clear support for the law during the midterm campaign, and more than a handful actively ran from it.

It's not an accident that Obamacare and national security have become critical points of internal tension. The edge is fighting the center because the parties are fighting themselves, and they are fighting not only over direction but over legacy—how much to embrace the policies and ideas of administrations past.

For Republicans, it's the Bush administration that still casts the biggest shadow over the party. The GOP has spent recent years struggling with whether and how to break from that era—whether by moderating that administration's aggressive posturing in the War on Terror or by pursuing more viable alternatives to its disinterested domestic policies.

Arguably that struggle started not in 2008, with the election of President Obama, but in 2006, with the Democrats sweeping victory in the midterms.

Democrats now appear to be starting down a similar path themselves, with friendly observers urging the party to rethink its messaging, tactics, and policy choices, and a growing sense that the party no longer knows what it stands for.

What we're witnessing, then, is not only a debate between the edge and the center, but a debate between the future and the past, one that's happening both within the parties and across them, in tandem and at cross-purposes, as part of a process of reform and retooling on both sides of the aisle. Both parties, or at least parts of them, have realized that what they've been doing is no longer working, and change is necessary.

That's the mark of a political system that, for all its flaws and frustrations, remains healthy enough to engage in self-examination and maybe even rehabilitation. And it's good news for the growing numbers of Americans who don't easily identify with one party or the other, or even with traditional conceptions of left and right, which have always been the province of the center. Indeed, the fact that there's a fight at all is a sign the edge is winning.

NEXT: More on the "Sony Disclosure Problem"

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  1. Peter,

    It is not edge versus center. It is the population versus the establishment elite. For decades now both parties have enacted policies the majority of the population didn’t want. The reasons for objecting to the policies varied but the objections were real and ignored. The best example of this was TARP. A large majority didn’t want TARP and the Congress and Bush told them to fuck off they knew better. If you will remember, it was this same left right “edge” coalition that nearly derailed TARP.

    The American public of all political persuasions loath the political and media classes in this country and are getting increasingly militant about being told to fuck off we know what is good for you.

    1. Yet 90% or more of incumbents will keep their jobs.

      1. Only 90? Sounds like we’re finally beginning to fight back. Take THAT incumbents!

      2. Not true. 28 of the 60 Senators who voted for Obamacare are now out of office. It is probably a higher percentage in the House.

        Think about it. In 2009, the Democrats had 60 Senators and 257 votes in the House. Today they have 46 seats in the Senate and 188 seats in the House. That is a 26% attrition rate in the House and a 24% rate in the Senate in just six years. And that doesn’t include the number of politicians who “retired” because they were doomed so they could be replaced by someone in their own party.

        Most of the 2004 Republican Congress is gone. Now, at least half or more of the 2008 Democratic Congress is gone. Both of them thought they would rule forever and here we are just ten years later and they are gone with the wind.

        The days of 90% of incumbents staying in office are over. It doesn’t work that way anymore and it will only get worse. The natives are getting restless, finally.

        1. 75% is still a passing grade.

          1. If a company fired 25% of its staff every five years, people wouldn’t feel very secure about their jobs, would they?

            1. Actually, an attrition rate of under 5% is pretty low out in the private sector. Even if you back out “voluntary” attrition, very few firms of any size have single-digit turnover in their workforces, at least in the industries I’m familiar with.

            2. I’ve worked at restaurants with turnover rates that had to be near 25%.

        2. So what? They just take turns playing good cop/ bad cop.

    2. Angelo Codevilla said it best with his delineation between The Ruling Class, and The Country Class.

  2. The “middle” is increasingly becoming an untenable position, much as the No Labels and bipartisanship for the sake of it crowd might protest.

    I for one am glad to see the left so encouraged to let the mask slip.

    1. You need to be careful with that “encourage the left so we can find out what’s in them” bit. That can backfire.

      1. Eh, it’s the mentality of giving the laws to the people good and hard when they finally get what they supposedly want. The cynic in me only expects direct negative outcomes of policy to actually teach most people lessons in governance, economics, etc.

    2. What Mr. McArdle will never admit (even though it’s pretty obvious) is that his sympathies lie squarely with the mushy middle status quo and the “Top Men” that are running our representative republic into the ground.

      1. Can you elaborate on “mushy middle status quo?”

  3. The polarization in Congress and national elections only matters because the Federal Government has far more power than it was designed for.

    If our system was functioning properly, Warren could run for Governor of MA on a platform of socialized medicine and social justice nonsense. Cruz could run in TX on small government and low taxes. Both would probably win and be popular. This stupidity of imposing policy decisions nationwide will eventually split the country again.

    Congress should only be talking about immigration, defense, and foreign policy – then send adjourn for a long break.

    1. This^

    2. Yep. That’s exactly why Congress was originally intended to be a part-time job!

      They were intended to only be in session for a few weeks at most, and during national emergencies.

  4. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  5. David Brooks, ladies and gentlemen:

    In this era of bad feelings, parties are organized more around what they oppose rather than what they are for. Republicans are against government. Democrats are coalescing around opposition to Wall Street and corporate power. In 2001, 51 percent of Democrats were dissatisfied with the rise of corporate power, according to Gallup surveys. By 2011, 79 percent of Democrats were. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, 58 percent of Democrats said they believed that the economic and political systems were stacked against them.

    How can you be this oblivious to reality? David Brooks is an idjit.

    1. He isn’t oblivious. He’s firmly part of the chattering class that exists to enforce the established propaganda, of which one tenet states “Republicans are ant-government and Democrats are pro-government”.

      In reality, it’s much more complex than that. But complexity is hard to fit into a 700-word column or a 2 minute “debate” on ABCNNBCBS.

      1. anecdotal case in point. I was discussing gun control with a republican police officer father of a friend of mine

        Him: What we need is courts giving stiffer punishments to criminals who use guns and requirements for more range time for CCW permits.

        Me: That would preclude people who can’t afford to spend that much time at the range or to expend that much ammunition. It’d also disproportionately harm the poor who also tend to live in high crime areas, so they need the ability to defend themselves even more.

        Him: You know… you’re right.

    2. Ah, you are confusing and idjit with a lying sack of $hit.

  6. Remember the old days when we used to have budgets? We don’t even talk about them now.

    1. Budget? That’s racist talk!

    2. Budget?! You can’t put a budget on national defense or educating the children, providing for people’s retirement, or feeding single moms. You see, these things are social goods and they’re different from any other goods provided by the market.

  7. I looked at the paycheck which had said $7434 , I didn’t believe that my mom in-law realy bringing in money in their spare time at their computer. . there brothers friend has been doing this for only 16 months and just paid for the morgage on there place and bought a top of the range Aston Martin DB5 .
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  8. The whole thing is bullshit. If their face is in front of a camera – they are performing for cash and power.
    I watched a book interview on CSPAN this weekend by a guy who worked fund-raising for Gephart in the 90s. Today they spend most of their time trying to collect money the parties demand they contribute to them in order to get positions on committees and cash for the next election. The idea that any of these celebrities are really governing for the people is ludicrous.
    Representative government is a dead experiment.

  9. I wouldn’t say dead. Off course, perverted…to be sure. But the concept of a Republic, run purely, is the most logical form of a civil government.

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  11. “That’s the mark of a political system that, for all its flaws and frustrations, remains healthy enough to engage in self-examination and maybe even rehabilitation.”

    Yes, the Parliament of horrors will self examine!

  12. Couldn’t wouldn’t even finish the article you evil shill. The majority in the Political Class doesn’t represent “the middle”. They’re so extreme that it makes Tobacco panna cotta seem sweet by comparison. The title of the article suggested some honest fact-based look at the situation. But if you’re in the middle of the street thinking you’re safely on the side-walk … well, maybe we’ll get a better analysis next time.

  13. my neighbor’s aunt makes $67 /hr on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her income was $12400 just working on the computer for a few hours. go now……..

  14. There is no reason at all to be optimistic. These sorts of squabbles and conflicts between insiders and outsiders have occurred for well over a hundred years. The result is always basically the same.

    The outsiders may win a battle or two or even three. But the establishment always wins the war. And at the end, the establishment holds far more of a chokehold on what is usually a far bigger beast as well.

    The last time the outsiders actually won the war was probably the Jacksonian/Whig era

  15. The reason the elites are successful is that they work full time to control us. We have to work full time to pay for them to do it.

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  18. We need to stop pretending there are insiders and outsiders in DC. They are all there for a single purpose, to get rich and gain power. The few who may have arrived with intentions of being true to the people who elected them are quickly corrupted by personal ambition. Listen to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz today vs a year ago. As soon as the carrot of the White House was dangled in front of them, they started to modify their positions and rhetoric. The political aristocracy that is now our government will never again truly serve the people until we limit the time they are permitted to serve. Special interests and their money control both sides of the aisle and the good of the country and the people as a whole is the least consideration in every debate.

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