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John Hood: In praise of mavericks

RALEIGH — Now that Republicans are leading both chambers in Congress and in the North Carolina legislature, intra-party differences will garner more attention than they have in the past — particularly from those hoping the new GOP majorities will be chaotic, disastrous, and short-lived.

The truth is, however, that political parties are and have always been coalitions of politicians, activists, and voters with a variety of views and interests. Partisan actors just have to have enough in common to justify working together.

There is certainly nothing new about governing parties containing factions. From the 1930s to the 1970s, when Democrats formed the dominant party in most of the country, their ranks included quasi-socialist agitators, Southern segregationists, Western wildcatters, Northeastern elites, recent immigrants, civil-rights activists, wealthy dilettantes, poor laborers, highly-educated professionals, and high-school dropouts who worked in union shops.

By comparison, the factional disputes within the modern Republican Party are minor. Indeed, both parties have sorted themselves out ideologically to a greater extent than ever before. More Republicans are reliably conservative in their opinions and voting behavior than in the past. More Democrats are reliably liberal.

The share of self-professed moderates or centrists — those holding a mixture of views, or no strong views at all — is declining.

Nevertheless, you can expect Republicans in Washington and in Raleigh to disagree about what to do, when to do it, and how much to do it. It would be both surprising and troubling if we didn’t witness regular and spirited disagreements. On this point I agree with the late Vermont Royster, the Tar Heel State native who became editor of the Wall Street Journal. Back in 1986, Royster wrote a column in praise of two of the day’s most prominent mavericks, Sens. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Both men, the liberal Weicker and the conservative Helms, were masters of parliamentary procedure and the rules of the Senate. They had no hesitation to use their skills to shape legislation, block presidential appointments, and challenge prevailing orthodoxies — the kind of role that, say, newly retired Sen. Tom Coburn has played in today’s Washington.

Such politicians aren’t destined to become presidents or party chairmen, Royster argued back in 1986, because chief executives “can’t afford the luxury of being absolutists in a free country where some compromise is essential.”

Still, Royster admitted his “fondness for mavericks, in corporate board rooms, White House councils, and especially in Congress. The one who will say, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ is useful to have around.”

Just as successful leaders must be able to forge consensus or concede some points if they want to enact policy, they must also be willing earlier in the process to consider different points of view and allow dissenting members to make their case.

Sure, endless debate becomes inaction. At some point, you have to call the question and let the majority rule. But mavericks play a useful role even when they don’t ultimately persuade the majority to vote their way. Their probing questions can flag problematic provisions of bills that proponents didn’t catch.

And by accommodating such debate, leaders increase the chance that members of the general public, even those who may not agree with the policy in question, will at least accept its legitimacy as a product of fully representative government rather than fume and fulminate against it for years to come (as conservatives quite understandably have done with regard to Obamacare, a poorly written bill enacted with insufficient debate and scant devotion to congressional procedure).

To tolerate or even champion the maverick is to opt for messier government. So be it. Dictatorships are disciplined. Monopolies are organized. One-party rule is tidy. I’d rather have a Congress or General Assembly full of strong, clashing personalities and robust debates rather than stultifying legislative bodies in which everyone appears to agree in public while seething in private.

As Ronald Reagan — a president who combined a willingness to negotiate with his own fondness for mavericks — once put it: “concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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