Half of America

Why it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to be president of the entire United States.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12:  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) listens as U.S. President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol February 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. Facing a divided Congress, Obama focused his speech on new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

The un­con­strained polit­ic­al war­fare sym­bol­ized by House Speak­er John Boehner’s pledge to sue Pres­id­ent Obama for al­legedly ab­us­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity pushes this pres­id­ency farther down a rocky road that Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush would pain­fully re­cog­nize.

In one key re­spect, each pres­id­ent’s ten­ure has fol­lowed a sim­il­ar arc. Each ini­tially sought the White House prom­ising to bridge the na­tion’s widen­ing par­tis­an di­vide. Clin­ton pledged to tran­scend “brain-dead policies in both parties” with his “New Demo­crat” agenda. Bush de­clared him­self a “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive” who would gov­ern as “a uniter, not a di­vider.” Obama emerged with his stir­ring 2004 Demo­crat­ic con­ven­tion speech, evok­ing the shared as­pir­a­tions of red and blue Amer­ica, and took of­fice em­body­ing con­ver­gence and re­con­cili­ation.

(Charles Dhar­apak-Pool/Getty Im­ages)But by this point in their re­spect­ive second terms, each man faced the stark real­ity that the coun­try was more di­vided than it was when he took of­fice. In 1996 and 1997, Clin­ton reached Wash­ing­ton’s most con­sequen­tial bi­par­tis­an agree­ments (par­tic­u­larly to re­form wel­fare and bal­ance the budget) since the early 1970s. But by 1998, House Re­pub­lic­ans were mov­ing in­ex­or­ably to­ward their vote to im­peach him.

Bush en­joyed some bi­par­tis­an first-term suc­cesses, par­tic­u­larly on edu­ca­tion re­form. But by this point in his second term, he was fight­ing with Demo­crats over the Ir­aq War and re­struc­tur­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity, and with House Re­pub­lic­ans over re­form­ing im­mig­ra­tion. Obama, from his first weeks, has faced un­re­mit­ting Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion. And, as his shift to­ward uni­lat­er­al ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion un­der­scores, he’s in­creas­ingly thrown up his hands at the pos­sib­il­ity of find­ing any com­mon ground with the GOP.

Clin­ton pur­sued agree­ments across party lines more con­sist­ently than either Bush or Obama. But this per­sist­ent po­lar­iz­a­tion likely owes less to the three men’s spe­cif­ic choices than to struc­tur­al forces that are in­creas­ingly pre­vent­ing any lead­er, no mat­ter how well-in­ten­tioned, from func­tion­ing as more than “the pres­id­ent of half of Amer­ica.”

That phrase, coined by Will Mar­shall, pres­id­ent of the cent­rist Pro­gress­ive Policy In­sti­tute, aptly de­scribes an en­vir­on­ment in which pres­id­ents now find it al­most im­possible to sus­tain pub­lic or le­gis­lat­ive sup­port bey­ond their core co­ali­tion.

That dy­nam­ic is partly ex­plained by in­sti­tu­tion­al changes that have trans­formed Con­gress in­to a quasi-par­lia­ment­ary in­sti­tu­tion and hindered pres­id­ents from build­ing pro­duct­ive part­ner­ships with the op­pos­ite party.

The move by both parties to rely less on seni­or­ity and more on votes by their full mem­ber­ship when al­loc­at­ing coveted com­mit­tee chair­man­ships has in­creased pres­sure on le­gis­lat­ors to toe the party line, which al­most al­ways dis­cour­ages co­oper­a­tion with the oth­er side. The rise of na­tion­al fun­drais­ing net­works to bank­roll more primary chal­lenges has re­in­forced that ef­fect: Le­gis­lat­ors today are denied re­nom­in­a­tion for com­prom­ising too much, not too little. And the roar of overtly lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive me­dia has provided each party’s ideo­lo­gic­al van­guard an­oth­er power­ful cudgel against le­gis­lat­ors temp­ted to stray.

But these changes only mani­fest a deep­er di­vide in the pub­lic it­self. In elec­tions up and down the bal­lot, each party now re­lies on voter co­ali­tions that over­lap re­mark­ably little with each oth­er in their demo­graphy, geo­graphy — or pri­or­it­ies. Demo­crats de­pend on a co­ali­tion that is young­er, ra­cially di­verse, more sec­u­lar, and heav­ily urb­an­ized. Re­pub­lic­ans mo­bil­ize a mir­ror-im­age co­ali­tion that is older, more re­li­giously de­vout, largely non­urb­an, and pre­pon­der­antly white. Sat­is­fy­ing one co­ali­tion without ali­en­at­ing the oth­er has be­come daunt­ing, and many act­iv­ists, es­pe­cially in the GOP, now see any at­tempt at com­prom­ise between them as ca­pit­u­la­tion.

In elec­tions up and down the bal­lot, each party now re­lies on voter co­ali­tions that over­lap re­mark­ably little with each oth­er in their demo­graphy, geo­graphy — or pri­or­it­ies.

The latest polit­ic­al “ty­po­logy” poll from the non­par­tis­an Pew Re­search Cen­ter, which tracks bed­rock at­ti­tudes about Amer­ic­an life, cap­tures the gap­ing dis­tance between these co­ali­tions — and the off­set­ting strengths that leave them so closely matched.

The sur­vey finds a con­sist­ent tilt, ran­ging from slight to lop­sided, to­ward Demo­crat­ic views on cul­tur­al ques­tions. The share of Amer­ic­ans who sup­port gay mar­riage has ex­actly doubled since 1996 to 54 per­cent; a nar­row ma­jor­ity backs abor­tion; three-fourths of adults (in­clud­ing big ma­jor­it­ies of minor­it­ies and whites) say im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally even­tu­ally should be al­lowed to ob­tain cit­izen­ship. In oth­er polls, ma­jor­it­ies en­dorse uni­ver­sal gun-pur­chase back­ground checks and Obama’s con­tra­cep­tion man­date.

But on Pew ques­tions about gov­ern­ment’s role, the coun­try leaned slightly to­ward Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ments. Just over half (in­clud­ing about three-fifths of whites) say gov­ern­ment is do­ing too much; re­spond­ents split evenly on wheth­er gov­ern­ment aid to the poor now mostly helps or in­stead fosters ex­cess­ive de­pend­ence. Most say gov­ern­ment can’t af­ford more aid to the needy. In oth­er sur­veys, re­l­at­ively few Amer­ic­ans say they have be­nefited from Obama’s eco­nom­ic or health care ini­ti­at­ives.

The groups most drawn to Demo­crat­ic ar­gu­ments, par­tic­u­larly on cul­tur­al is­sues (minor­it­ies, mil­len­ni­als, and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men), are grow­ing, which should boost the party over the long term. But Demo­crats’ in­ab­il­ity to sell much of the white middle class on gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism gives Re­pub­lic­ans a coun­ter­vail­ing ad­vant­age. These con­trast­ing strengths present a for­mula for an ex­ten­ded elect­or­al stan­doff that denies either party a last­ing ad­vant­age any­time soon. That means more con­front­a­tion and stale­mates in Wash­ing­ton — and more pres­id­ents who can’t muster the sup­port of more than half of Amer­ica.

What We're Following See More »
DRUG OFFENDERS
Obama Grants 111 More Commutations
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a release Tuesday afternoon, the White House announced that President Obama has commuted and/or reduced the sentences of another 111 convicted criminals, mostly convicted of drug possession or trafficking. About 35 were serving life sentences.

BUT HE’S NOT ADVOCATING FOR IT
Grassley Open to Lame Duck Hearings on Garland
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday he'd now be willing to hold a hearing on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in a lame-duck session of Congress. While he said he wouldn't push for it, he said if "Hillary Clinton wins the White House, and a majority of senators convinced him to do so," he would soften his previous opposition.

Source:
DEFINITELY MAYBE
Rubio Can’t Guarantee He’ll Serve a Full Term
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

We can call this the anti-Sherman-esque statement: If reelected, Marco Rubio ... might serve his whole term. Or he might not. The senator, who initially said he wouldn't run for a second term this year, now tells CNN that if reelected, he wouldn't necessarily serve all six years. “No one can make that commitment because you don’t know what the future is gonna hold in your life, personally or politically,” he said, before adding that he's prepared to make his Senate seat the last political office he ever holds.

Source:
DUTERTE BECAME PRESIDENT IN JUNE
Obama to Raise Multiple Issues in Meeting With Philippines Prez
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Since Rodrigo Duterte took over as president of the Philippines in June, he has made a serious of controversial statements and launched a war on drugs that has led to nearly 2000 deaths. He called the US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, "a gay son of a bitch." Next week, President Obama will meet with President Duterte at the East Asia Summit in Laos, where he " will raise concerns about some of the recent statements from the president of the Philippines," according to White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Source:
LATE SEPTEMBER
Conservatives Preparing ‘Dry Run’ for Constitutional Convention
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Convention of States Project, which seeks to force a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution, will hold a "dry run" in Colonial Williamsburg starting Sept. 21. "Several states have already followed the process in Article V to endorse the convention." Thirty-four are required to call an actual convention. "The dry run in Williamsburg is meant to show how one would work and focus on the changes and potential constitutional amendments that would be proposed."

Source:
×