Posted by: Jeff | February 22, 2010

Presidents Cause Partisanship

With the retirement of Evan Bayh, and his declaration that he’s throwing in the towel out of despair over dysfunction in Washington, partisanship is making its way back to the forefront of the public discourse. One of this blog’s leading gurus has an inaugural column in Newsweek arguing that when it comes to needless partisan gridlock, one of the main culprits is the occupant of the White House:

According to data gathered by the political scientist Frances Lee, when the president—not this president in particular but any president—decides to take a position on an issue, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. If we’re talking about health, labor, defense, or immigration policy, the chances that Democrats and Republicans will stay in their separate corners increase by 20 to 30 percent. On foreign aid and international affairs, the likelihood of a party-line vote increases by more than 65 percent.

The most telling statistic comes when the vote is on so-called nonideological issues. These are issues where neither party has an obvious position. Space exploration, for instance. There’s no “liberal” take on checking out Mars. But even these issues are 30 percent likelier to end in a party-line vote when the president mentions his preference.

The president is the leader of his party, and the other party can’t win unless the public sours on the president. That’s not going to happen if the opposition routinely hands him accomplishments. To get an idea of the cost of cooperation, imagine that the guy in the cubicle next to you is not only competing with you for a promotion but might also lose his job if the boss likes your work. Think he’s going to sing your praises at the next staff meeting?

This echoes the logic of a post by Alex Massie, which I’ve linked to before, on why it would be irrational for the Republicans to join the Democrats in a bipartisan vote on health care reform no matter what the nature of the bill is.

Suppose the Republican leadership had worked with the White House this past year to craft a health care bill that, though opposed by both the purer elements of both right and left, could pass the House and Senate; suppose too that this bill actually worked. Who gets the credit for that? Not the Republican party or Republican candidates across the country, that’s who. No, it would be the President’s triumph and his alone. (I’m assuming, for the sake of this argument that the bill would have covered 30m Americans, controlled or lowered costs etc.) It’s Obama who would have reaped the electoral rewards from this process. So what, rationally, does it profit the Republican party to help him achieve that aim?

You might argue that this is a form of political nihilism or that it’s putting party before the national interest and you might well have a point. But the country is, much of the time, a secondary concern. Parties exist to win elections and then – and only then – take measures they believe are in the national interest. Helping the other mob win isn’t part of their brief.

Saying politicians should put the interest of the country ahead of the interests of their party or their chances of getting re-elected is like saying reporters should put doing important journalism ahead of doing popular gossip or that filmmakers should put good stories ahead of box office concerns. It’s perfectly true and also perfectly meaningless. Stands on principle don’t help people keep their jobs. And politicians want to keep their jobs, same as everyone else.

And the way politicians keep their jobs is, to no small degree, by convincing voters not to cast their ballot for the other guy. (This would remain true, incidentally, even if we had a viable third party in this country.) When the other guy’s party has the White House, then that president becomes a very potent symbol with which opposition politicians can tar the other party as a whole. If by not cooperating with that president’s agenda, they increase the chances that president will be viewed as ineffective, then they also increase the chances that his party will be viewed as ineffective. And their own chances of being either elected or re-elected go up substantially.

The up-shot of all this is that, if we want a more functional legislative process, having the president take a backseat role in most political controversies on the Hill would be a good idea. As much as it aggravated a lot of talking heads, Obama’s hands-off approach to health care reform brought us a bill which has gotten closer to actual passage than any reform in decades. It won’t be a panacea, and certainly structural changes such as reforming or even eliminating the filibuster matter far more. But given the data Klein cites, the impact of presidential behavior – and presidential deference – isn’t insignificant, either.

It won’t always be the case that it’s best for the president to shut up and stay on the sidelines, and I actually think the current impasse over health care reform is one of those exceptions. But generally speaking, the apparent desire on the part of most American voters to have the president out front and publicly leading on the issues of the day – especially those issues most beset by partisan gridlock – is probably not only mistaken, but counterproductive as well.

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