Commentary Magazine


Obama vs. the Facts on Polarization

When President Obama was interviewed by the New Republic, he was prepared with a fresh list of ways to paint his Republican opponents as unreasonable. The one that garnered the most attention at the time was Obama’s insistence that Fox News was punishing Republicans for reaching across the isle. Fox contributors, liberal and conservative, chimed in to point out that this was both false and unseemly behavior from the president of the United States.

But another excuse for the GOP’s seeming intransigence that is currently favored by the president and his uninformed supporters in liberal punditry, like Paul Krugman, is that Republicans have used the process known as gerrymandering to squeeze out moderates and to boost ideological stubbornness. Aside from the coincidence that leftists are suddenly concerned about gerrymandering now that the last round seemed to help Republicans, there is also the fact that what the president said is untrue. First, what Obama said:

The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they’re really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.

Not so, says political scientist John Sides, who took to Ezra Klein’s Washington Post Wonkblog–generally favorable terrain for the president–to try and nudge the president back into truthful waters. Sides shows that the data confirm almost the exact opposite: that congressional delegations of both parties vote in a much more partisan way than their districts. That is, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress vote with their fellow members of Congress (of the same party, that is) in ways only tangentially related to the voting patterns of their constituents.

As Sides notes, it’s easier to see this effect with regard to members of the Senate, since senatorial delegations are sometime split, yet each senator votes either conservatively or liberally despite the fact that they represent the same constituency–their state. Sides writes:

No matter whether Obama won 20 percent or 50 percent of their district, Republican representatives have voted similarly — that is, they have taken conservative positions on average.  No matter whether Obama won 50 percent or 80 percent of their district, Democratic representatives have taken liberal positions, on average.  Constituency hasn’t affected anyone’s overall voting behavior that much.

And the 113th Congress is no exception….

What about the Senate?  Same thing.  Just think of states with split delegations.  How ideologically similar are, say, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin?  Or David Vitter and Mary Landrieu?  Not very, even though they ostensibly represent the same voters.

So is cooperation hopeless? Is Obama doomed to act without any Republican congressional support? Fortunately for the president, the answer to that is also no. Though the Obama administration likes to play up partisan conflict to push the Obama-against-the-world storyline, the president has more support from the right than he’s willing to admit. This is particularly the case on foreign policy, where there has been almost no pushback against the emerging Obama doctrine of secret drone wars and preemption on cyber warfare. Unlike the Democratic Party’s cynical turn against the war they voted for when they thought such unprincipled behavior was good partisan politics, the Republican Party’s congressional delegations have remained generally supportive of the war effort, even when the commander-in-chief was no longer from their ranks.

And it’s not simply the hawks, either. As a group of foreign policy professionals writes in Foreign Affairs, the two parties continue to agree on some broad policy outlines:

More than 80 percent of aides in both parties think that it is important to protect U.S. sovereignty and that U.S. law takes precedence over the United Nations. Yet over 60 percent of staff in both parties think that most international problems cannot be solved by the United States alone, and that it is less efficient to act alone than to cooperate with others. These data suggest that both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill share skepticism toward international law but recognize the importance of multilateral cooperation.

Congressional attitudes also converge on some specific security and economic issues. More than 70 percent of Republican and Democratic staff in both chambers have very favorable attitudes toward NATO and think that multilateral cooperation on the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism is very important. Responses to questions about global security treaties, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, revealed that although Democratic aides are far more supportive of them, roughly half of Republican aides also view them positively. The United States’ long-standing allies are another area of agreement: more than 90 percent of staff in both parties reported having a positive outlook on U.S. alliances with the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

As the authors write, this is consistent with past surveys as well. Obama likes to pretend that he is dealing with unfair and unprecedented opposition and that his antagonists are rewriting the rules unilaterally as the game progresses. Such self-pity is unworthy of the office, but it’s also flat wrong.

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