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The False Hope of Bipartisanship

A Commentary By Alan Abramowitz

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's not a matter of "if." It's a matter of "when." As in, when will all of the feel-good rhetoric about Democrats and Republicans joining hands to solve the nation's problems come to an end and open partisan warfare resume in Washington? In fact, that time may already be here. Despite Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Republican leaders and conservative intellectuals since his election and his willingness to modify his economic stimulus package to accommodate Republicans' desire for smaller spending increases and larger tax cuts, the President isn't getting much love from the other side of the aisle.

One day after Mr. Obama ventured to Capitol Hill to urge Republican lawmakers to support his $819 billion stimulus package, House Republicans voted 177-0 against the bill. And despite intense efforts to reach an agreement acceptable to moderates in both parties, only three Republicans ended up supporting the bill in the Senate--just one more than the bare minimum needed to avert a filibuster. Meanwhile, conservative pundits and talk-show hosts have been hammering the President's plan as old-fashioned pork-barrel politics or socialism in disguise, and some former Bush Administration officials, including Dick Cheney, have been suggesting that his orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and ban the use of waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" are jeopardizing the safety of the American people.

The new president is still enjoying a honeymoon with the public. According to the Gallup Poll, almost two-thirds of Americans approve of the job that he is doing so far. That's quite a change from his predecessor who left office with an approval rating of about 30 percent. Even among Republicans, Mr. Obama started his term with a 43 percent approval rating and only a 30 percent disapproval rating--which is why most Republican leaders and conservative commentators, with the notable exception of Rush Limbaugh, have been reluctant to criticize the new president too harshly, claiming that they wish him well despite their disagreements.

Don't expect the honeymoon to last very long, though. The more decisions the president makes, the more he is going to offend the Republican base and the more free Republican leaders and conservative pundits are going to feel to attack him. That's because many of the policies that Mr. Obama supports, from withdrawing American troops from Iraq and lifting the ban on American aid, to international organizations that provide abortion counseling, to expanding government-sponsored health insurance and making it easier for unions to organize workers, are anathema to the large majority of Republican voters as well as the large majority of Republican office-holders.

One of the most important characteristics of public opinion in the United States today is polarization. Americans agree that the country has serious problems but they disagree sharply about what needs to be done about the economy, health care, climate change, the war in Iraq, gay rights, abortion, and a host of other issues. Democrats generally line up on one side of these issues while Republicans generally line up on the opposing side. And the biggest differences are found among the most interested, informed, and active members of the public--the people whose opinions matter the most to political leaders.

Journalists and editorial writers tend to see partisan conflict as a product of petty rivalries and personality clashes. They assume that Democratic and Republican leaders could settle their differences if they really wanted to, and that policies with broad bipartisan support would be better for the country than policies supported by only one party. But the major reason why partisan conflict has been so intense in the United States in recent years is not that Democratic and Republican office-holders don't like each other, but that they have fundamental disagreements on the major issues facing the country.

Since the 1970s the Democratic Party has been moving to the left, the Republican Party has been moving to the right, and the center has been disappearing. The conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who once exercised considerable influence in Washington are almost extinct. There are so few remaining moderates, and the ideological gulf separating the parties is so wide, that bipartisan compromise on most issues is almost impossible. And rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans, especially those who pay attention to politics, have been moving apart as well. As a result, politicians who try to compromise with the other side risk antagonizing their own base.

Contrary to the claims of some pundits and editorial writers, there is no clear relationship between bipartisanship and good public policy. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had broad bipartisan support. Twenty-nine Senate Democrats and 82 House Democrats voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq; almost all of them ended up regretting it. And some very successful policies have been produced by highly partisan decision-making processes. In 1993, President Clinton's first budget passed Congress without a single Republican vote. Despite claims by Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders that the tax increases included in that budget would throw the economy into a tailspin, the result was eight years of economic growth and shrinking deficits.

To win Republican support for his budget, President Clinton would have had to give up the tax increases on upper income Americans that were a critical component of his economic plan. Similarly, to win more than token Republican support for his economic stimulus package, President Obama will almost certainly have to agree to much larger tax cuts and much smaller increases in public expenditures than his economic policy advisors believe are desirable.

Barack Obama was elected on a promise of bringing change to Washington. But during the campaign he talked about two kinds of change: change in the content of public policy and change in the way Washington works and especially in what he described as the excessive partisanship of the Bush era. The problem is that these two kinds of change may be incompatible. Appointing a few Republicans to the cabinet and inviting some Republican members of Congress over to the White House to watch the Super Bowl may win Mr. Obama some compliments, but it's unlikely to win him any votes on legislation. That would require making significant concessions on the content of that legislation.

The last two elections have drastically reduced the number of moderate Republicans in the House and Senate, leaving the party more dominated than ever by hard-line conservatives who represent safe Republican districts and states. In order to win more than token support from congressional Republicans, therefore, President Obama would have to make major policy concessions to these hard-line conservatives--concessions that would almost certainly be unacceptable not only to the vast majority of congressional Democrats, but also to the vast majority of politically engaged Democrats in the country. Such concessions would require him to abandon commitments that he made to key Democratic constituencies during the 2008 campaign on issues such as health care, education, climate change, reproductive rights, and labor law reform.

Despite the President's rhetoric about the need for both parties to work together to solve the country's problems and his efforts to reach out to Republicans and conservatives, there is no indication that he is willing to make such concessions and he would be foolish to do so. It would only be seen as a sign of weakness and would lead to demands for even bigger concessions in the future.

Like it or not, in order to produce the kinds of policy changes for which he campaigned, Mr. Obama is going to have to depend overwhelmingly on the support of his fellow Democrats in the Congress and in the country. So expect more party-line votes in the House and Senate, more complaints from Republican leaders about being ignored, and more strident attacks on the president by conservative pundits and talk-show hosts. As a wise man once said, "politics ain't beanbag."

Dr, Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkely Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States

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