The historic polarization of Congress outlined in National Journal’s latest vote ratings presents perhaps the biggest challenge to President Obama, more daunting even than the fact that Republicans now control the House.
The ratings, which document increased party discipline and increased ideological rigidity by members, dramatically show that Obama faces a dilemma that has grown for each president since Ronald Reagan: How to get sizeable numbers of the opposition party to support him on key initiatives. It leaves him in a difficult situation as he tries to put together coalitions around different votes.
To understand Obama’s dilemma, consider his predecessors. Jimmy Carter was the first president to computerize voting records to identify where his support was. “There was always a sizeable bloc of Republicans that on the important issues you could pretty much count on,” said Les Francis, who was Carter’s deputy White House chief of staff. “On some critical issues, they made all the difference. We could not have gotten the Panama Canal treaty without Howard Baker,” he said, referring to the former Republican senator from Tennessee.
Likewise, Reagan had Democratic defectors, many of them the famed “boll weevils” from the South, support his agenda. Bill Clinton got GOP votes on welfare reform and trade agreements even if not one Republican voted for his 1993 tax hikes. George W. Bush had ample Democratic support for his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, as well as the war in Iraq. It’s gotten harder for each president to lure away members of the opposite party as Congress has grown more ideologically divided. Obama is no exception.
Citing the National Journal findings, Francis said it is crucial that the trend be reversed. “If that sets in,” he said, “governing becomes impossible for anybody. Not just Barack Obama, but a Republican president if one is elected.”
The problem is that while all sides have dug in, the Republicans have dug in deeper. Indeed, there are 61 House Republicans representing districts that voted for Obama and they show remarkably little inclination to vote the president’s way. On a slew of ideological votes related to the recent continuing resolution, even these Republicans who would have incentive to break with their party nevertheless stayed loyal on issues like cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood.
By contrast, Democratic House members representing districts that went for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008 seem to be much more ideologically flexible, often bucking Obama and their party on issues like health care and cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon emissions. If Obama looks to mine GOP votes, he’s got to look hard to find them.
George C. Edwards, editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly and a political science professor at Texas A&M University, said the outlook is grim. “Gridlock for the next year,” he said. “You’ve got two parties that are far apart. Not only is there no overlap, but they are not bunched around the center ... There are relatively few people in the center. The world views are so different that it is hard to have a conversation.”
William Schneider, a veteran political analyst, said the National Journal vote ratings confirm “what we’ve been seeing ... that the Democratic Party has become a liberal party and the Republican Party has become a conservative party.” Schneider is resident scholar at Third Way, a Democratic think tank that champions moderation.
Despite Obama’s liberal voting record as a senator, Schneider said he believes the president is most comfortable governing from the center. But he was not very effective in his first two years in the White House at attracting Republican support for his initiatives. In part, that was because he often deferred to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill who were far more partisan. That might be true, but even if Obama bucks Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, he’s got to find Republicans willing to go along with him.
The recent lame-duck session offers some glimmers of hope for Obama. Republicans and Democrats came together on an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and Obama was able to secure Senate ratification of the New START nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
The White House would like to take that lame-duck formula and follow it again to make deals. But aides to the president are not optimistic that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will feel free to cut deals without incurring a backlash from the tea party-backed members of the GOP caucus. The lame-duck Congress was still controlled by Democrats. The 112th Congress has a GOP controlled House and, what’s more, nearly half of the new House Republicans never before held any public office. They are unaccustomed to the deal-making that is the heart of governance. Many are avowedly hostile to compromise.
“We have a purposely inefficient system,” said Edwards. “Ours is designed to make it difficult to change the status quo. If you want change, you’ve got to get a lot of people on board and getting a lot of people on board means compromises.”
The immediate task facing Obama is finding a way to make compromise palatable to a Congress that’s highly polarized.
This article appears in the February 28, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.