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
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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.

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