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October 05, 2015

It is tempting to blame certain Democrats for not acting like an opposition party vis-à-vis Republican Governor Charlie Baker. 

We should temper ourselves.  There are constitutionally ordained reasons for the lack of a true opposition party in Massachusetts. 

Jim O’Sullivan notes in Friday's Boston Globe that Democrats, out of gubernatorial power for the first time in eight years, seem to be a befuddled bunch.  As evidence we have the “hilarious, seemingly never-ending series of laudatory statements about the Republican governor.” 

Statements such as, “He has gotten off to a terrific start.”

Well.  Clearly Massachusetts Democrats are not Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party front bench.

Some activists are concerned this bonhomie on Beacon Hill will make it difficult to defeat Governor Baker in 2018.  They’ve plenty of reasons to be worried, not the least of which is an incumbent Governor hasn’t been defeated in a general election since 1974.

But I digress.

Activists and those hoping to see greater clashes on Beacon Hill bemoan the lack of strong oppositional tactics.  But they’re in for greater frustrations because the Democrats are not an opposition party.

In many parliamentary democracies, the opposition party's job is to argue and vote against the government's initiatives.  Sometimes they may be able to advance a vote of no confidence, bring the government down, and force snap elections.

The Labour party in the UK or the New Democrat party in Canada are not burdened with governing power.  They don’t have any.  They oppose.

None of this applies to the system in the US or in Massachusetts.

Though they may not wield gubernatorial power, Democrats are not an opposition party in the traditional sense  They’re a governing party in a system of separate institutions that share political power.  A system with regularly scheduled elections and no power to dissolve the government.

Unlike a centralized parliamentary system, power in Massachusetts is constitutionally shared among multiple, separately elected, institutions.

In the Legislature, it is the Republicans who are the opposition party in both houses.  Speaker DeLeo and President Rosenberg cannot effectively legislate if they are motivated solely by the desire to oppose a Governor.

Our independently elected members of the executive branch also make for constitutionally difficult opposition politics because these are not party positions.  Sure, parties nominate and help elect them, but our executive leaders are not party leaders in a prime ministerial sense.

And within the executive branch, power is diffuse.  A Governor staffs the agencies and sets the policy agenda but there are independently elected Attorneys General, Treasurers, State Auditors, and Secretary of the Commonwealth.   Independently elected Governor’s Councilors confirm judicial nominees.

None of these officeholders are opposition figures in the traditional sense: they are governing figures with their own powers independent of the Governor but still dependent on working relationships with other political actors at the state, county, and local levels.   

A true opposition party is hard to create in our constitutional system.

This may well cause angst among party members and activists who wish to see greater lines of demarcation between the parties.    The Massachusetts Constitution doesn’t make their job easy.

Rest assured, an opposition to the Governor will emerge well before the winter of 2018 when party caucuses send delegates to the spring conventions.   But hoping for a strong and unified opposition among Hill Democrats at this point in the Governor’s term is to hope for that which our Constitution does not easily provide.   

Massachusetts Democratic party, Massachusetts Constitution, opposition party

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