The endgame over the fiscal cliff, like the first stirrings of debate about gun control and immigration, all capture a subtle but potentially consequential shift in the Washington dynamic.
On each front, Democrats are growing more unified while Republicans and conservatives are displaying increasing cracks. That inverts the alignment through most of President Obama’s first term--and indeed most of the past quarter-century.
In the decades immediately before and after World War II, both parties were divided in Congress between the moderate and the more ideological wings. But since the 1980s, the two sides have diverged. Conservatives have established unquestioned dominance in the GOP. Meanwhile, Democrats, though moving to the left overall, have maintained much greater divisions.
The debates over taxes, guns and immigration all reflect this evolution. Not long ago, each issue divided both parties.
While virtually all congressional Republicans supported Ronald Reagan’s 1981 supply-side tax cuts, for instance, a significant phalanx of GOP centrists split from conservatives to back subsequent deficit-cutting tax increases under Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Meanwhile, the Republican tax-cutters frequently found support from Democratic conservatives, such as the mostly Southern “boll weevils” who crossed party lines to back Reagan’s 1981 plan.
On guns, Bill Clinton suffered defections from 77 mostly Southern and Western House Democrats during the battle over the assault-weapon ban in 1994. But he passed the bill nonetheless by attracting 38 House Republicans, most from suburban districts in blue-leaning states.
On the big immigration debates, such as the 1986 legislation Reagan signed that provided citizenship to those here illegally, or George W. Bush’s similar attempt in 2006, left-of-center Democrats joined mostly with Republican moderates and GOP officials from areas with big Hispanic populations against the most conservative voices in both parties.
But while Democrats have remained divided on all three issues, Republicans more recently have moved right almost monolithically. On taxes, every congressional Republican voted against the Clinton 1993 budget plan and Obama’s health reform proposal that raised taxes, and virtually all Republicans backed the younger Bush’s tax cuts. Almost every House Republican from even the leafiest suburban districts voted with the National Rifle Association in 2011 to override state concealed-carry laws. And support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants grew so toxic inside the GOP that John McCain, during his 2008 presidential campaign, felt compelled to renounce his own 2006 legislation providing one. On all of these issues, Democrats remained split through the Bush years and Obama’s first term.
Now this unity gap is narrowing. On taxes, Republicans and conservatives are agonizing over whether to accept an increase not only in tax revenue but also in marginal tax rates--a party anathema since the 1990 deal. By contrast, Democrats are adamantly behind raising rates on the top earners. (If anything, Obama is courting resistance by setting the bar too high with this week’s offer to preserve current rates for those earning less than $400,000.) On immigration, Obama and congressional Democrats have signaled that they intend to move forward aggressively; the same trajectory seems to be developing, in a more qualified way, on guns. On both issues, most Republicans will still oppose the Democratic initiatives. But unaccustomed cracks have emerged in that wall of opposition.
Shifting electoral incentives on each side are driving this role reversal. Overall, Democrats still operate as more of a coalition party, harboring a broader range of views, than Republicans. That’s largely because self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals in the electorate, which means that Democrats in most races (including the presidency) need to attract more votes from moderates to win than Republicans do.
But Obama secured a convincing reelection even while losing by preponderant margins among the older and blue-collar whites who once anchored the conservative end of the Democratic electorate. Having won without those voters, Democrats are now operating with a far more ideologically cohesive coalition that overwhelmingly supports action on issues that previously paralyzed the party. Even red-state Democrats can’t entirely ignore a party consensus that has coalesced to the point where about four-fifths of Obama voters supported higher taxes on the affluent and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, according to the exit poll.
House Republicans, almost all fortified in heavily conservative districts, still lack much individual incentive to compromise. But they are not impervious to the debate among partly leaders and strategists worried that without a broader appeal the GOP will remain excluded from the White House. The individual and collective needs of congressional Republicans are clashing, which helps explain their uncertainty.
In the near term, growing cohesion in each coalition points toward more polarization. Yet a more unified Democratic Party may hold more leverage to forge agreements with a GOP that has long benefited from greater unity in its ranks. Two sides less likely to buckle could easily produce stalemate. But, eventually, that dynamic might also promote the grudging understanding that reasonable compromise is the only alternative to deadlock between two coalitions now comparably consolidated behind their contrasting visions for the nation’s future.