Ezra Klein notes, it is rather ironic to find Republicans rejoicing over yesterday's U.S. District Court ruling that the individual mandate on health insurance is unconstitutional. After all, the individual mandate was an integral part of Republican health reform proposals for years, and was championed by the likes of Chuck Grassley, Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Isn't this GOP schadenfreude rather hypocritical?
Well, sure, but this is hardly atypical, for either party. Frances Lee makes this point abundantly clear in her recent book Beyond Ideology, which I highly recommend. Her thesis is that party polarization in the U.S. Senate is fueled by, but not solely a function of, the increasing ideological distance between the two parties. Lee breaks down roll call votes by subject and finds that the party caucuses in the Senate are at least as divided on non-ideological issues as they are on ideological ones. The parties quickly reverse stances on a wide range of issues depending upon who's in the majority and who controls the White House. Seemingly non-controversial, non-ideological issues like openness, transparency, anti-corruption, and anti-waste quickly become battlegrounds for the parties. The individual mandate is just another piece of evidence supporting Lee's thesis.
Lee doesn't really dwell on this in the book, but she's providing lots of evidence for the criticism that pundits and members of the public regularly direct at Congress -- that many of things politicians argue about are not about substance at all, but are rather about who's up and who's down. This really is bickering. Senators really do switch positions on issues just to make the president or members of the other party look bad.
Yet even if such bickering is hypocritical and convenient, there is still considerable democratic value to it. If the president and the majority party in Congress are proposing a massive overhaul of a large chunk of the economy, the public has a right to hear critiques of it. The health reform bill may well have been the best possible legislation on the topic with any real chance of passage, but that doesn't mean it was perfect, and people should know both the pluses and minuses of its features. Only the minority party has any real incentive to bring those arguments up. Similarly, only the minority party has any real incentive to investigate the president's nominees and appointees. Sure, this creates a climate of distrust, but it also has a better chance of rooting out and preventing malfeasance than bipartisan harmony does.