The Person or the Party?

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

When you go to the polls, do you vote for the person or the party?  Many who fancy themselves political independents, or who otherwise say they value people above parties, will say they vote for the person regardless of party.  But a vote for a federal official—representative, senator, president—is a vote not only for the candidate you want elected, but a vote for his or her party to control the federal government as well.

This is most obvious in our presidential election.  Whoever is elected president will be considered the head of his party for the next four years.  He’ll staff his cabinet and the high level bureaucratic posts in his administration mainly with members of his own party.  To maintain the illusion of bipartisanship, or to win bipartisan support for a particular policy, he may give high-profile appointments to members of the opposition party.  President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, appointed prominent Republicans to his cabinet to serve as the Secretaries of War and the Navy during World War 2.  More recent presidents have frequently given a couple of cabinet positions to members of the opposition party.  But the President’s party always gets the lion’s share of administrative appointments in his administration, and the power that comes with them.

To vote for a candidate for the U. S. Senate or House of Representatives is also a vote to give the candidate’s party control of the chamber to which you want the candidate elected.  Each chamber is organized along party lines.  Whichever party wins a majority in the Senate elects its majority leader, gets the chairmanships of all Senate committees and subcommittees, and majorities on all policy making committees.  Likewise, in the House of Representatives, the majority party gets the Speakership, the leadership of all committees and subcommittees, and majorities on most committees (the two exceptions are the ethics committees in each chamber, which can recommend punishment and even expulsion for members they believe have behaved dishonestly; each party gets equal representation on each committee, so that any penalty assessed against an accused miscreant must have bipartisan support).  So a vote for a Republican running for the House of Representatives is a vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker and continued Democratic control of the House.  A vote for a Republican for Senator is a vote to retain Mitch McConnell as its leader as well as to keep the GOP in charge of the Senate.

Of course, a voter who’s normally a party loyalist may feel conflict should the party nominate an obviously unfit candidate for office.  This was the situation created by Alabama Republicans who nominated a thoroughly discreditable candidate to run for the Senate in a 2017 special election.  The winner of the Republican primary was a religious zealot who had been credibly accused of dating underage teenage girls (he was never specifically accused of having sex with his cradle-robbed girlfriends, and has no known criminal record).  The Democrats nominated a former federal prosecutor best known for his own rather different preoccupation with little girls—he successfully pursued convictions of two of the monsters who bombed a Birmingham church in 1963 and murdered four girls thereby). So who to vote for?  Actually, enough Alabama Republicans voted for the Democrat hero over the Republican nut job to give the hero the Senate seat.  Since he’s now running for re-election in a ruby-red state against a normal Republican who’s neither a zealot nor a creep, he’ll probably lose his bid to keep his seat for himself and the Democratic Party.

Least obvious, but of great importance nonetheless, is that a vote for a party’s presidential nominee and/or senate nominee is a vote for party control of the federal judiciary.  However much we may cherish the hope that our federal judges will be above politics, and however hard they may try to be (or at least say they’ll try to be), attempts by each party to control the courts are as old as government under the Constitution itself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote of how the GOP raised, lowered, and then raised again the number of seats on the U. S. Supreme Court to either increase the seats that could be filled by Republican Presidents Lincoln and Grant, or decrease the seats that could be filled by Democrat Andrew Johnson.  But the Republicans are not the only games-players and the Supreme Court is not the only focus of attention for those who would seek partisan control of the federal judiciary.  

Two of our most illustrious Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, set the pattern for partisan fighting over the federal courts.  In February, 1801, after the Federalists lost the Congress and the White House in the 1800 elections but before they had to surrender their offices to the victorious Democratic-Republicans, they passed legislation to increase the number of lower court judgeships to be filled by outgoing Federalist President John Adams, and to prohibit incoming President Jefferson from filling the next Supreme Court vacancy, thereby reducing the size of the Court from 6 to 5.  Among the first pieces of legislation passed by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans was a law that abolished the new judgeships before Adams’s appointees could take office and to restore the lost Supreme Court seat.  

In the last 100 years, no president has filled fewer than 80% of judicial vacancies with members of his own party.  In fact, the average percentage of judicial vacancies a president fills with his own partisans is in excess of 90%.  However much the Democrats today complain today about how the Republicans have used their control of the White House and the Senate to staff the courts with Republicans, there’s no doubt they’ll do the same thing if they win the 2020 election.  After all, Democrats and Republicans do it all the time.

So the bottom line is that whether you think you’re voting for the person or the party, you’re voting for the party.  You’re voting for whichever party to which your candidates belong to control the institutions of the federal government, and all the resources they command.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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