Be Careful What You Wish For: Obama and Responsible Party Government

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.



  1. One thing to add, which supports your argument – districts are generally so “safe” these days that there’s no benefit for a Congressperson NOT to act in a partisan manner.

  2. Vijay – You are absolutely correct. As evidence, I will present data showing in how many congressional districts Obama ran AHEAD of the winning congressional candidate. Care to guess?

  3. I’d guess less than 10% of districts, probably less than 5%. Are there any normally-contested Congressional districts (NY-20 this year notwithstanding)?

    Do you think something like the Tanner bill ( would allow “Responsible Party” to exist alongside moderated Congressional voices? I feel like there is a lot working against non/bi/post-partisanship (including the Electoral College).

  4. The Tanner bill to which Vijay alludes would instruct states to use (presumably nonpartisan) commissions to redraw congressional district lines after every census (as well as restricting the number of times those district lines could be redrawn after the census). Unfortunately, most political science research suggests that redistricting is NOT the primary source of the increased polarization in Congress, so adoption of the Tanner bill is not likely to reduce polarization. Instead, polarization is rooted in demographic changes that contribute to the election of more partisan members of Congress. I’ll try to devote a separate post to this.

  5. Matt, the thrust of this and other posts of yours on the subject of partisanship seems to be regret at today’s partisan gap.

    I am coming around to the view that the extent of a working relationship between the parties doesn’t make that much difference in results and after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in who the chefs were and whether or not they get along.

    If my memory serves me well, the past 76 years have seen major successful policy initiatives some of which were the results of partisan divisions and others which stemmed from bipartisan cooperation.

    The second New Deal, which resulted in the Wagner Act giving labor the right to organize, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (regulating wages and hours) were largely the work of the Democrats. [Incidentally, thanks to the latter legislation I earned the munificent sum of 40 cents an hour in my first job in the summer of 1942 — $16 dollars a week and over $800 a year. Wow! Of course that was before taxes, including social security. Oh for the good old days. But I digress.]

    The Marshall Plan, on the other hand, was enacted by a bipartisan coalition, although a Democratic President took the lead and Democrats provided a majority of the votes.

    The same was true of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Medicare was a partisan issue, and the Democrats put that through largely on their own.

    Then again, the deregulation mania of the 80s, 90s, and early 21st century had bipartisan support, as did the Bush 2001 tax cuts.

    But the Clinton budget of 1993, and the stimulus package this year, were strict party-line votes.

    So what does all this suggest? To me it suggests that we ought to worry less about partisanship or bipartisanship and more about policy delivery. In some circumstances successful policy initiatives have stemmed largely from one party — for example New Deal 2 and Medicare. At other times successful policies have stemmed from bipartisan support — the Marshall Plan and the civil rights legislation of the mid sixties.

    Furthermore, poor policy changes are not avoided just because the two parties agree on them — at least in my opinion deregulation was a bad choice, and so was the Bush tax cut legislation.

  6. To briefly respond to Bob above, I’m not sure where Matt falls on this matter, but I know how I feel about partisanship.

    It’s actually not the fact of partisanship that’s regrettable to me, but the fact that there are only two choices, and that our system is structured for only two choices (e.g., Electoral College). This creates the illusion of polarity when in reality we should be talking about gradients on most issues.

    Add to this fact that a typical congressperson spends something like 70% of time on fundraising for the NEXT campaign, and you have a system built around bi-polar elections, not actually governing.

    Simply put, this makes for a policy delivery disaster.

    For example: people on the “left” were up in arms when the Republicans in Congress actually wanted to slow down and discuss Obama’s Recovery Bill. Meanwhile, people on the “right” were up in arms about the “socialistic” economic policies of Obama’s budget. While these are useful tactical stances with respect to public perception, neither one actually helps better policy get delivered, because they simply exploit constructed polarity in the service of electoral gains.

    I myself (as Matt may remember from when I was in his classes) am relatively polarized in my own personal opinions of what should and should not be law, but I am more than frustrated by the lack of long-term thinking from the people who represent us. When individuals take credit or are blamed for huge things (say Clinton and prosperity in the 90’s, Reagan and Communism in the 80’s, etc.), it means the campaign matters more than the governance.

    If you are perpetually raising money to enable perpetual campaigning, and you have exactly one rival from exactly one party, the result is “unhealthy” partisanship in Congress. There is little nuance and less forethought in the manner in which government is executed, which is especially troubling because that is why they were elected in the first place.

    So is partisanship itself a problem? I don’t think so. But as long as there are only two parties, and these parties are aligned to specific policy stances on every issue (something that was not the case in the 60’s and earlier), it is a bad thing.

  7. Vijay and Bob,

    You raise good points on the opposite sides of this debate, and your comments deserve a full response, with data, which I will try to give in a separate post. Bob is correct to point out that “good” policy can be made under different partisan configurations – Chuck Jones has written an excellent book making just this point. My point in discussing partisanship is not to judge it on its merits, but instead to discuss why it is exists. This is an important question given Obama’s very real campaign promise to reduce partisan tensions, which in turn was premised on the mistaken but deep-rooted perception that current level of partisan polarization is largely George W. Bush’s fault. As I hope I’ve made clear, both assumptions – that it was Bush’s fault, and that Obama could change things – are mistaken. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on this.

    As for Vijay’s point – I think there is a potential cost in terms of public support for government if Washington politics continues to be viewed as a strictly partisan affair. Whether that could be cured by a third (perhaps more centrist?) party is a good question, one for which I’m not sure I have the answer. But it certainly merits a separate post!

    thanks for the great comments…

  8. While I am sympathetic to the frustrations that Vijay has over the lack of a third party alternative, I am also leery of going that road since it can be difficult to stop with one additional party. On the other hand our system of presidential rather than parliamentary government at both national and state levels makes multiple parties less likely. In parliamentary systems a party list system of voting combined with proportional representation has sometimes led to many parties in the national legislature, with frequent disintegration of governing coalitions and changes in government leadership. France had frequent changes of national leadership before they amended their constitution to provide a combination presidential/parliamentary system, and this is still the case in Italy and in some other western nations.

    However, a presidential system of government in the United States at both the national and state levels tends to discourage third parties in the long run (at least that was my understanding of the political science studies on the subject) so perhaps we could experiment with electoral changes favoring third parties.

    This is a whole new topic I know. But if Matt ever finds it appropriate to address it I would like to hear what he thinks would be the impact if multimember legislative districts and proportional representation were instituted at the state government level and, where possible (in those states with several seats in the House) at the national level. (The short answer probably is that it wont happen.)

  9. Bob, I didn’t mean to open a can of worms, but I guess I do have an agenda, now that I think about it. Since this is a blog format, I guess we get to go where the conversations take us! So, continuing to go further afield of the original post…

    It turns out that, yes, I am calling for electoral reform. But, I would go in a different direction from you, Bob, by isolating it from government reform.

    First principles: 1) The will of the people needs to be accurately represented, and 2) The system of government we have in place is more or less the way we want it.

    My Four Reforms…

    1) Require majority victory.
    2) Impose strict “clean elections” laws. (this is most negotiable)
    3) Allow anyone who qualifies to participate in general election (i.e., no primaries). Also, by implication, no more Electoral College.
    4) Institute a new voting system. I prefer Condorcet systems (some kind of hybridized Modified Borda and Ranked Pair would be ideal) because they account for the gradient of preference factors among voters. Run-offs should also be built into the system or candidates who cross a threshold.

    Assuming a simplistic scenario with four candidates – far right, center-right, center-left, and far left – voting would generally select against the poles.

    Under the current scenario, the moderates are selected AGAINST during primaries and thus we have more polarized candidates (either perceptually, or in reality). Under a Condorcet system, moderate candidates are selected for.

    This allows for natural trends to continue – voter ID with party has generally been falling, and that means people evaluate candidates individually. Matt does imply that people are probably less polarized than it seems, so it stands to reason a more nuanced electoral system would enable moderated voices to actually be elected.

    Looking at the CA recall of 2003, more than 40% of voters voted against recall, and less than 25% of voters voted for Schwarzenegger. Under CA recall laws, this still made Arnold the governor. If my four reforms were instituted, maybe Arnold would still get elected, but the will of the people would actually be heard.

    Anyway, sorry, Matt, for the digression away from discussion of polarized parties.

  10. Vijay’s third reform would be enough to drown most voters — myself included — in a morass of choices involving a depth of information most would be unwilling to achieve.

    His fourth reform, if enacted, would probably result in the tar and feathering of those who foisted such complexity on the electorate.

    My criteria for elections: they shouldn’t make heavy demands on potential voters who already stay away from the polls in droves, and the counting of votes shouldn’t require a PhD in statistics.


  11. Bob, you may be right about how people would react to my reforms, but I think you’re making a bold assumption as to why voters don’t turn out, and underestimate their interest in fair elections.

    I don’t have the stats, but it is my understanding that people who don’t vote typically behave this way for three reasons:

    1) My vote is one of millions, so the marginal impact is zero.
    2) The candidates are not interesting/represent corporate interests/etc., so I’d only be voting strategically, and not based on my true political beliefs.
    3) I don’t have the time to wait in line to vote Tuesday (or, I’ll get fired).

    As I see it: there is a feeling of disenfranchisement, which leads people not to vote. The two-party system in fact encourages disenfranchisement, as each side has blocs they try to get to polls, and blocs they hope to scare away/discourage from polls. A multi-candidate field would make this harder.

    As for “tar and feathering” and “a PhD in statistics”, you do hyperbolize too vigorously: a Condorcet system works for sports MVP voting, the Heisman Trophy, etc., and nobody gets confused. There are paired matchups during March madness. People understand ranking systems when they complain about the opacity/unfairness of BCS. In fact, an elimination-based system (and its limitations) is pretty straightforward to anyone who watches reality TV. Runoffs make sense to people, too, especially instant-runoffs. As long as the system is transparent, fair, and consistent, I think voters will accept it.

    To address your fears of turnout, I would add a fifth reform: make election day into either a national holiday, or extend it into an “election week” (inclusive of at least one Saturday), to encourage voters to the polls.

    Finally, your last paragraph, regarding “heavy demands”. There are two assumptions there that I disagree with:

    1) That voter interest is unchanging, regardless of the voting system.
    2) That our current system does not make heavy demands on voters, or demands less than my reforms.

    To the first point, interest changes from year to year. I think it is at least partly based on the ability of people to see the results of their actions as voters. Hence, turnout is up in a “change” year (2008) and down in a “status quo” year (1996).

    To the second point, I believe the current election system makes heavy, and unreasonable, demands as it is: primaries are incomprehensible, and push parties to their ideological extremes. The election only has two viable candidates, meaning voters often vote “against the other guy”, if at all. Interest groups need only buy individuals in two parties at most to enable their agendas (look up “Luis Gutierrez” and “payday loans”). Campaigns themselves are the epitome of bad job-seeking – tearing down the other guy to say “I’m less bad than my one opponent.” There’s only one day to vote. These all help parties to polarize, but don’t help people with getting interests heard. Some people who don’t turn out (like people I talk to here in New York), see these as impediments to a real election, and see no point in voting.

    Ultimately, these are mitigated by my reforms, or similar reforms. Asking people to rank candidates does not seem that hard, so the fact that one prefers “Nader over Gore, but Gore over Bush” or “Buchanan over Bush, but Bush over Gore”, etc., would be accounted for.

    Perhaps some step-wise election process, where the primary season is replaced with a winnowing from an open field to everyone who meets a certain vote threshold. Then, voters have a field of candidates to choose from, and are not subject to the choices of the “base” of two seemingly-distant parties.

    Will it definitely work? No. But I think it is reasonable to believe that voters are interested in having an election system which reflects their nuanced opinions better, and reflects the fact that there is more agreement than disagreement.

  12. Vijay –

    Six observations.

    I don’t watch reality TV.

    I support your idea of elections as national holidays.

    I support Instant Runoff Voting, which is comprehensible even to me.

    I believe political parties are the most effective institutions yet developed for making democracy work in polities larger than small cities.

    I am throwing in the towel.

    Eye yi yi.


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