The next time our local editorialists and pundits opine about the corrupting influence of partisan politics, they might want to be careful what they wish for. If California is any example, voters may discover that the most effective way to eliminate political partisanship is to eliminate one of the two major parties.
After years of legislative gridlock that left their state helpless to address its chronic budget crises, California voters had finally had enough. In 2010, Californians bucked the Tea Party tide (and $140 million of Republican Meg Whitman's own money) by returning Democrat Jerry Brown to the governor's mansion after a 28-year absence. Then in 2012, voters gave Brown a two-thirds Democratic supermajority in both state houses, and with it, the power to raise taxes, pass bills, and send constitutional amendments to the ballot without fear of Republican interference.
So far, this Democratic hegemony has worked out well for California, with a mix of budget cuts and tax increases finally getting the state budget under control. Democratic leaders are even looking forward to surpluses in the near future. "I really believe this is the end of one very difficult era in California," state senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said at the state capitol last week as the Democratic-dominated legislature started its new session.
And with the California state GOP marginalized by its far-right-wing base, traditional Republican allies are beginning to abandon their partisan ways. "For the business community, there is a recognition that the best path forward for the state from a governance perspective is with moderate Democrats," a Republican consultant recently told the Los Angeles Times. At a postelection forum, wealthy Republican donor Charles Munger Jr. admitted the same: "Our role as Republicans for a while will be to choose the best Democrat."
That's a role Republicans might want to get used to up and down the West Coast, where Democrats now control the governor's mansions, legislatures, and all six US Senate seats in California, Oregon, and Washington.
"Oregon is a one-party state," complained one-term Oregon representative Shawn Lindsay (R-Hillsboro) in a guest column in the Oregonian following his failed reelection bid. When Washington secretary of state Kim Wyman is sworn in next month, she will be the only statewide elected Republican serving on the entire West Coast.
Of course, partisanship has its purpose. Political parties presumably stand for something, and by standing together, party members better promote a mutual agenda. The real problem comes when politicians put their party's interests ahead of the public interest, such as when US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) infamously declared in 2010: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
One-party rule sets these interparty rivalries aside, focusing the legislative debate on policy, not electoral politics.
But can such one-party rule really work? Well, here in Seattle, it already does.
The Seattle City Council is officially nonpartisan—but long composed entirely of Democrats, it actually operates as a unipartisan body. Compare that to the mix of urban Democrats and suburban Republicans on the allegedly nonpartisan King County Council, which still caucuses along party lines. Neither council is free from ideological and personal infighting, but county council members still jockey for party advantage, whereas city council disputes are purely intramural affairs.
"Even Seattle needs a viable Republican Party," resident curmudgeon Joel Connelly admonishes in a recent Seattlepi.com commentary, but as the city council routinely demonstrates, it really doesn't. For all its timidity and occasional befuddlement, Seattle city government remains remarkably well run, producing balanced budgets with little of the painful cutbacks and legislative drama that plague its more partisan county and state counterparts.
A few years back, egged on by the editorial boards, local voters attempted to impose nonpartisanship on the county council by fiat. It didn't take. But if partisan bickering is truly the problem that pundits say it is, county and state voters are always free to follow the California example: "It will be easier," longtime California Republican consultant Mike Madrid told the Los Angeles Times, "to moderate the Democratic Party than to fix the California Republican Party."
The same could well be said of Washington State.