If, as news reports suggest, a Senate “compromise” economic/stimulus bill has been forged by a coalition of about 20 moderate Democrats and three Republicans, it is compelling evidence that we have not entered a new, bipartisan era. Indeed, as I suggested in part I to these posts analyzing the stimulus bill, the historical parallel that most comes to mind is Clinton, 1993. And it raises the question: why? Why didn’t a president who took office ostensibly committed to radically transforming the nation’s politics carry through on that promise? The short answer is that he can’t – his rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, Obama simply is not powerful enough to overcome the fundamentals that determine presidential-congressional relations. The roots of polarization in Congress run deep, and Obama’s 2008 election barely touched them. Consider even this mild nod toward bipartisanship in the Senate. By lopping off some $40 billion in state aid, Obama’s allies in the Senate were able to attract three – count ‘em three! – Republican votes. And how did House Speaker Pelosi react? By promising to contest those concessions in the House-Senate conference proceedings! At the same time, powerful Democratic lobbies, such as the NEA, have sprung into action to pressure Democrats to reject the Senate compromise. Clearly, Obama went as far as he could go in reaching out to Republicans. He should feel blessed – he attracted three more Republican votes than Clinton did in 1993.
It is tempting to accept the punditocracy’s interpretation that Republican intransigence on the stimulus bill is a politically motivated strategy designed to derail the Obama presidency. But this ignores two important facts: as Pelosi’s actions indicate, Democrats have been no less unified against finding a bipartisan solution than have Republicans. And the type of straight party-line voting we are observing here predates the Obama presidency. As my previous post indicates, it dates back to the Clinton presidency – even before, as I hope to show in a later post.
And so I return to the previous question: why? Why no bipartisanship on ostensibly the biggest issue to face this country since the stagflation of the 1970’s? Let’s be clear: Obama can’t be faulted for anything here except maybe embracing a rather naïve view of presidential power, captured in his highly-publicized response to efforts by Republicans to eliminate tax credits for people who don’t pay taxes. In rejecting the Republican proposal, Obama reminded them that, “I won” (story here). Except, as I will show in a later post, from the perspective of most members of Congress, he didn’t win, at least not among their voters.
If Obama’s not to blame, then who, or what, is? There are two explanations for the persistence of party polarization. First, the division between Republicans and Democrats is based on fundamentally different views regarding the role of government in the economy. It has always been thus – indeed, it is that primary issue that led to the creation of a two-party system in our nation. And that disagreement is bolstered by a system of elections and representation that makes it almost impossible for presidents to forge consensus where none exists.
For reasons that I will expand upon in a later post, however, these differences have become magnified since the Reagan era. Consider the following figure, based on voting records in Congress analyzed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. (I will discuss these statistics more fully in a later post, but you can go to Poole’s website here for a detailed explanation.) By looking at each vote on legislation cast by members of Congress in each session, Poole and Rosenthal are are able to locate the Representatives’ position in “ideological” space. The graph below shows the ideological distance between the “center” of the Republican and Democratic parties dating back to the 1870’s. As you can see, the lines in both the Senate and the House trend up beginning in the Reagan presidency, indicating a steady increase in the ideological distance between the two parties.
There is no evidence that the 2008 congressional elections halted this trend. If anything the defeat of Republican moderates likely widened the gulf between the two parties.
So you can see why, in the debate over the Obama stimulus plan, we are seeing almost a carbon copy of the polarized politics that engulfed Clinton’s first term budget proposal. The causes run deeper than any desire by Republicans or Democrats to screw the opposition. Instead, they reflect deep-rooted fundamentals that have governed presidential-congressional relations since early in Reagan’s term. In my next post I’ll explore why partisanship is on the rise.
For now, however, the important point is that Obama’s election did nothing to alter this underlying reality. And it is unfair to expect him to overcome these differences. The simple fact is that in our system of shared powers, he lacks the capability to do so.
P.S. I know you may think I was joking, but I’m really going to give away a very cool “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid,” T-shirt to the winner of the “When Will Hillary Clinton Resign” contest. At this point, I have exactly 6 entries. Jack Goodman is already measuring his size. This is unacceptable, given the number of people who are logging into this blog. There are very few free things in life. Take advantage of this one. At some point the t-shirt will likely be worth several thousand dollars on e-bay. I promise. So send those entries in either to my email or to the blog.