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Campaign Rhetoric and Political Reality, Part 2

- February 29, 2008

A while back, I took on Frank Rich’s notion that Obama was a “post-polarization” candidate (see also this follow-up post). Survey data suggest that Democrats and Republicans are quite polarized in their evaluations of him. And the distance between the two groups of partisans is likely to grow in the months ahead. Such is the natural effect of campaigns.

My point now is of a piece with that previous post. In short, I will suggest that “post-partisanship” is much more easily said than done — and this, it seems to me, is a weakness of Obama’s message.

As we all know, this message is centered on the notions of “change” and transcending old debates and partisanship. For example, here is a quote from his speech after the “Potomac Primary”:

bq. We know it takes more than one night – or even one election – to overcome decades of money and the influence; bitter partisanship and petty bickering that’s shut you out, let you down and told you to settle. We know our road will not be easy. But we also know that at this moment the cynics can no longer say our hope is false.

(The rest of the speech is more substantive, but obviously it is this broader message of change that has garnered more attention.)

It is easy to see why this message is appealing. Americans are not satisfied with the direction of the country. But more importantly, they dislike the process of politics. As John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse have argued, the American public thinks that politicians needlessly bicker. The public believes there is consensus about the important problems and there are tractable solutions to these problems, so why, then, are politicians arguing and not simply enacting these solutions? Obama promises to do better, and thereby to engender a new political process that transcends pointless conflict.

My question is whether this is remotely possible — a skepticism derived from essential lessons of political science. The central lesson is this: political institutions change slowly, when they change at all. And they tend to change via a “layering” of new on top of old, which produces an often unwieldy hybrid that serves to realize the goals of neither reformers nor defenders of the status quo. (This is, for example, a central contention of Eric Schickler’s book on institutional change in Congress.) Thus, one cannot simply clean house, a la Jesus and the money-changers in the temple. Instead, the various institutions of politics — Congressional committees and parties, interest groups, etc. — will remain much as they are.

In particular, the partisan polarization in Congress — see David’s earlier post for the graph — has its roots in the changing nature of the two parties and their respective coalitions, the kinds of rules and practices they employ in crafting and debating legislation, and perhaps even more fundamental trends regarding income inequality, as Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and Nolan McCarty have argued in their book. While it is true, as Brendan Nyhan has pointed out, that presidents can choose more or less “partisan” courses — e.g., by eschewing or seeking coalitions with members of the opposite party — they cannot easily rise above existing partisan cleavages.

To put it bluntly: if Obama wants his policy agenda enacted, he is going to have to play “the same Washington game” that he decried in the speech cited earlier. This will, as it does to all presidents, lead him to compromise some of his policy goals — especially since his stated goals are as anathema to Republicans as are most any other Democrat’s. But more importantly, this will mean that he cannot change the political process, at least as much as he wants to.

My skepticism is not meant as an endorsement of the current system or as an exercise in worldly cynicism. The simple fact is: political institutions change much more slowly than Obama suggests. An Obama presidency will succeed or fail largely based on how well he succeeds as a partisan, not on how much he can transcend partisanship.