For all of their foresight on other matters, America's founders were somewhat taken aback by the natural development of political parties. It happened anyway, even during George Washington's presidency. And although party ideology has fallen along different lines at various points in American history, it has long governed the allegiance of a majority of American voters in elections.
In legislative matters, party ideology takes the form of the modern party caucus system. In order to achieve their goals, partisan lawmakers collaborate, choose leaders, and agree on strategies in advance.
On Saturday, lawmakers demonstrated why this system evolved and is necessary. Two conservative senators, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, discarded the caucus system and put their own tactical plan into action without warning. It did not prove helpful to their cause.
Cruz and Lee derailed a bipartisan agreement on procedure Friday night. Their actions removed the only major obstacle to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., confirming several minor Obama nominations that Republicans strongly opposed. Because Republicans lacked the votes to block the nominations in question, their best and only leverage was to insist on the use of all debate time, running out the clock on the lame duck Congress. It seemed likely that Democratic senators would not tolerate losing their Christmas just so that Obama could get his surgeon general confirmed.
Cruz's and Lee's parliamentary freelancing gave Reid all he needed to advance the schedule by two full days and guarantee the confirmation of these nominations. In exchange for making Reid's job easy on ramming the nominations through, all Cruz and Lee got was a symbolic floor vote against Obama's executive action on immigration. It drew the support of only 22 senators. One reason was that if it had succeeded, their motion would not have prevented Obama's executive action but, rather, would have killed the underlying omnibus bill and caused a government shutdown.
Many people believe that party leaders set the ideological tone of their caucuses. This is not quite accurate. The leaders' constituents — the caucus members — are the ones who set that tone and choose the caucus's shared goals by consensus. What the leaders do is choose tactics for achieving the caucus's goals. They play the role of the football coach or the general.
Every army has disagreements among its leaders, but they must agree on tactics to effect their strategy. Every football team must agree on the next play if it is to work. In the Senate, caucus leaders are chosen precisely to make such decisions. The weekend's events demonstrate that some Republicans are not playing on the same team. This was not a simple, common occurrence of senatorial independence, but rather open defiance of caucus strategy — a decision by junior officers that their own tactical decisions take precedence over those of generals who were chosen for the job.
When this happens, games and battles are lost. Before Republicans take the majority in the Senate next month, they should make up their minds about who is in charge. Otherwise, they face the prospect of losing again and again.