Back in the Bush era, it was Republicans who got fed up with the rules. Democrats in the U.S. Senate were filibustering conservative judge nominees, and Republicans had had enough of it. So they planned to change the rules in the Senate with the "nuclear option" that would allow an up-or-down vote on their judges with a bare 51-vote majority. Democrats like then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) were outraged at this chicanery, but the bipartisan Gang of 14 defused an explosive situation so that the judge nominations could go forward.
Now the Democrats are in power, and they are frustrated with the rules. After a year of trying, they've produced a genius ObamaCare bill that has passed the Senate but that can't pass the House. Or is it vice-versa? They want to change the rules so that they can avoid a filibuster in the Senate. This time, it is Republicans that are outraged.
The idea of "rules" is central to the modern moral order and its contract idea of government. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor writes that today, "Political authority itself is legitimate only because it was consented to by individuals ... and this contract creates binding obligations in view of the pre-existing principle that promises ought to be kept." When you change the rules, you break the promise, and you invalidate the legitimacy of your political authority. Here's how this theory proves itself in practice. It was explained to me years ago by my Greek friend George in the 1970s immediately after the end of military rule in Greece. The conservative party had been elected after the end of military rule. The key thing, George told me in the late 1970s, was that the rising socialist party, PASOK, should get elected to power and the that the ruling conservative party should actually turn over the government to their hated rivals. Then, in due course, PASOK should be defeated, the conservatives elected to office, and PASOK should turn back the government to the conservatives. Only then, George said, would each party believe that the other guys would play by the rules.
It's the same here in the United States. Political partisans are always yielding to dark thoughts about the opposition. Watergate confirmed Democrats in all their fears about "Tricky Dick" Nixon. Conservative conspiracy theorists constantly worried about Bill Clinton breaking the rules, and they even feared that he'd find a way to circumvent the Twenty-Second Amendment's limit on presidential terms.
More recently, Democrats spent eight years questioning President Bush's legitimacy, and Republicans constantly obsess over ACORN, which seems to be designed by Democrats to steal close elections for Democrats.
The way to cool the fever swamps in the other party is to follow the rules and to be seen to follow the rules. When you don't, you rile up the opposition. You'd think that the Democrats would be careful, now that they are in power, to avoid riling up the opposition, especially since they made such a big deal about transparency and post-partisanship in 2008.
But you would be wrong.
Instead, Democrats spent 2009 failing to execute a partisan program that has failed, again and again, to win any support from Republicans. And now that the president's signature health care proposal is badly winged by its unpopularity and by Republican election victories, Democrats are changing the rules to drag their wounded bird over the finish line before it dies.
Government is force. We humans prefer not to think about that, but we should. Especially when our party is in power, we should never forget that every government program that spends taxpayers' money, no matter how wonderful, is still all about force. Wise governments fashion bipartisan legislation whenever possible to create the impression that everyone except a few cranks is in favor of their program.
The best way to remind the opposition partisans of the truth about government and get them to fear for their lives and their freedom is by doing what the Democrats are doing. You push an unpopular program through on a party-line basis, and you change the rules and broker corrupt back-room deals when the going gets tough.
The modern moral order, as we saw above, is founded upon the idea of a social contract, a set of rules that everyone must follow. But our liberal friends have often been tempted by the idea that rules are not for them. It's OK for the poor to break the rules because the rules are unjust and favor the powerful; it's OK for liberals to break the rules because they are creative artists challenging the status quo.
Liberals are wrong to think that they and their clients are exempt from the rules. Luckily for them, the Tea Party movement will shortly set them right.