In 1950 a special committee appointed by the American Political Science Association released a landmark report entitled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” As the name suggests, committee members sought to encourage the development of two ideologically distinct, internally cohesive parties. The Report was issued in response to growing concerns that it was often difficult to differentiate Republicans’ views in Congress from Democrats'; the two congressional parties were akin to “Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum.” Indeed, on important issues such as civil rights, many Democrats were more conservative than most Republicans. Critics argued that this partisan blurring left voters without any real choice in elections. Moreover, the lack of distinct party alternatives weakened political accountability and undercut presidential leadership by making it difficult to hold either party responsible for enacting – or failing to enact – the president’s legislative programs. The cure, according to responsible party advocates, was to develop more clearly differentiated, internally cohesive parties characterized by strong party loyalty and distinct party platforms, preferably within the context of unified government.
Today, we are experiencing precisely the type of “responsible party government” that political scientists had advocated more than half a century ago. (My thanks to Bob Johnson whose comments on a previous blog reminded me of this.) A Democratic president, Barack Obama, heads a Congress dominated by his own party, and he has pursued – at least initially – a policy agenda whose passage relies almost exclusively on the support of his party majority. As is often the case with reforms (think campaign finance, or reforms to the nominating process), however, reforms to the party system have exposed an unanticipated (by committee members) consequence – what I call the “dark side” to responsible party government.
That dark side, it should be clear by now, is the polarization of policy debate, and – eventually – a growing divide within the public forced to choose between two often extreme policy choices. We saw this happen during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the early signs indicate a repeat of an increasingly divided public during the Obama administration. Consider the most recent public opinion polling data from the Pew Research Center which shows that “Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.” (See here). As the chart below indicates, Democrats are 61% more likely than Republicans to approve of Obama’s performance to date.
This is a slightly larger partisan gap than Bush experienced at a comparable time in his presidency, and much larger than any other president has experienced dating back almost 4 decades to Nixon’s presidency. Note that independents were as likely to support Bush in 2001 as they are to support Obama today, and Democrats are as likely to support Obama as Republicans were to support Bush in 2001. But Republicans are about 9% less likely to support Obama than Democrats were to support Bush in 2001.
Partisans on the Left are blaming the partisan gap on Republicans for their failure to support Obama to the same degree that Democrats supported Bush early in Bush’s presidency. The problem with this argument, however, is that it ignores the reasons why Bush enjoyed stronger support among Democrats than Obama has among Republicans. In fact, Republicans DID support Obama in much higher numbers early in his presidency – more strongly than Democrats supported Bush – as the following Gallup Poll makes clear. However, Republican support for Obama has dropped some 14% since his inauguration, while support among Democrats remains steady.
What happened to cause the drop in Republican support? In large part, the stimulus bill – and its passage with almost no Republican votes – is what happened. A CBS/NY Times poll showed a clear public preference for a bipartisan stimulus bill. After the bill passed, a majority of those polled believed that neither Democrats nor (especially) Republicans in Congress were working in bipartisan fashion, although a strong majority (71%) felt that Obama was attempting to work in bipartisan fashion. But the number of those who thought Obama was working in bipartisan fashion dropped 7% from before the stimulus bill’s passing.
Clearly, what we are seeing to date is the mirror image of what we saw under the Bush administration: the gradual polarization of the public in response to the perception of partisan fighting in Congress, and the passage of policy based primarily on single-party support. To regular readers of this blog, of course, this is no surprise; the growing split in public support for the Obama administration is precisely what I predicted during the first heady post-inaugural days of the Obama administration, when I cautioned that Obama’s best intentions notwithstanding, we were likely to see a continuation of the polarized politics that characterized presidential-congressional relations during the Clinton and Bush II presidencies. The roots of that polarization extend deep into the political soil, and they resist half-hearted, rhetoric-based efforts at eradication. Obama missed his first and so far best opportunity to translate rhetoric into deeds when he proved unable to bridge the differences with Republicans on an acceptable bipartisan mix of tax and spending proposals in the stimulus bill. That sent an early signal to the public that polarization, and not bipartisanship, still dominated congressional debate. First impressions matter, which is why I think Obama may have missed an opportunity to push his Democratic party more to the center, particularly when a narrow plurality of Americans seemed to believe that more tax cuts, and less spending, would produced more job growth. As a CBS/NY Times poll after passage of the stimulus bill found: “In principle, Americans favor tax cuts over government spending as a means of job creation. 50% think that tax cuts for businesses and individuals would do more to protect or create jobs, while 41% think increasing government spending on infrastructure, health care, education and other areas would be more effective.” The problem, of course, is that even if Obama wanted to move in the direction of more tax cuts, as the public seemed to prefer, he would have confronted an ideologically unified Democratic party, supported by partisan pundits on the airwaves and in blogs, who would have excoriated him for trying to compromise with Republicans. For their part, moderate Republicans faced a similar ideological backlash from the Right. Caught between these forces, Obama took the easy, partisan route. If he is to fulfill his campaign pledge for a post-partisan presidency, he simply has to bite the bullet and risk alienating those on the Democratic Left. It won’t be easy.
Nonetheless, there are some issues, I believe, on which Obama can govern in bipartisan fashion. One of those issues is climate change and the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. In my view, the situation is ripe for a bipartisan effort to pass a stringent, but moderate, climate bill. To do so, however, Obama will need to resist pressure from both conservatives and the left wing of the environmental movement and avoid adopting procedures, such as using reconciliation to pass a cap and trade bill, that are sure to alienate moderate Republicans and Democrats. In my next blog I’ll discuss this issue more fully.
In the meantime, however, the lesson for Responsible Party advocates should be clear: be careful what you wish for. We have now endured almost two decades of responsible party government, and it is not clear that its purported benefits have outweighed the costs.