The Deepening Partisan Divide

January 8th, 2010



This piece was originally published in National Journal.

Want to see bipartisanship? Look at the congressional votes in 1935 to establish Social Security. The measure got almost unanimous support from Democrats: 95 percent of House Democrats and 98 percent of Senate Democrats voted to create the safety net for the elderly. Republican support was also overwhelming: 84 percent of House Republicans and 76 percent of Senate Republicans voted for the new program.

Want to see bipartisanship again? Look at the Medicare votes of 1965. Once again, Democrats were nearly unanimously supportive (83 percent in the House, 89 percent in the Senate). This time, Republicans were more closely divided but still delivered significant support: 70 GOP House members (51 percent) and 13 Republican senators (43 percent) voted for Medicare.

Want to see bipartisanship vanish? Look at the 2009 votes on health care reform. The House measure passed in November with the support of 85 percent of Democrats but only one of 177 Republicans. Last month’s Senate vote on health care reform was totally polarized: All 60 Democrats voted yea; all 39 Republicans present voted nay.

We have now had three presidents promise to end hyperpartisanship. Each failed.

Bill Clinton proclaimed himself a “New Democrat” and promised a “Third Way.” As president, he did get a lot of Republican support for free trade, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. But the country became bitterly divided, not so much over Clinton’s policies as over his values. And the Republican-controlled House impeached him.

George W. Bush vowed to be “a uniter, not a divider.” The country was, in fact, united for exactly one year–from the terrorist attacks of September 2001 to the beginning of the Iraq war rollout the next September. Then everything fell apart. A country that was divided under Clinton became more divided under Bush.

In 2008, Barack Obama got elected pledging to heal the nation’s wounds. But in his very first year, the divisions in the country and in Congress worsened. How bad has it gotten? The narrowly averted terrorist attack on Christmas Day instantly became a partisan issue in a way that 9/11 and the foiled December 2001 shoe-bombing attempt did not. Former Vice President Cheney set the tone when he said that President Obama “seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war.”

Don’t expect the debate over health care to end if Congress enacts reform legislation. “It will be a huge political issue” in this year’s elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has declared. It will become the Democrats’ health care bill. And Democrats will have to keep defending it–and to hope that it becomes more popular once it goes into effect.

Nearly a dozen state attorneys general are considering filing suit to challenge the constitutionality of a mandate that individuals have health insurance. “It’s a tax on living,” Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, told reporters. “It’s a tax on people or a penalty on those who don’t do anything.” Suing to block the mandate comes dangerously close to a campaign of civil disobedience.

Hyperpartisanship is making American government dysfunctional. In other countries, when a party has a strong majority and unified control of government, it implements its program, passes laws, and makes changes. After huge victories in 2006 and 2008, Democrats in the United States have that kind of power. Why can’t they just govern?

They can. But only in the House, where the majority party rules. The U.S. system of government was designed with checks and balances, separation of powers, and federal-state divisions. It was designed to make government as weak and as difficult as possible. Even more so with extraconstitutional rules, such as the filibuster, which has come to require a normal working majority of 60 votes in the Senate.

American government was not designed for majoritarian rule. It requires consensus, the kind of consensus that usually comes out of a crisis, namely, an overwhelming sense of public urgency. But we are not seeing a consensus emerging from the country’s economic crisis, or the health care crisis, or the environmental crisis. Instead, each crisis has deepened the partisan divide and made government more dysfunctional.