How polarized are we? More than ever, according to the numbers generated in a recent Gallup survey and examined last week by William Galston of the Brookings Institution at the Web site of The New Republic. Since 1992, moderates have declined as a share of the electorate from 43 percent to 35 percent.
Conservatives and liberals have increased their presence, each by 4 percentage points, conservatives now at 40 percent, liberals at 21 percent.
Then again, most of us knew as much, the Gallup survey showing a more conservative Republican Party and a more liberal Democratic Party. Galston frames the challenge facing President Obama and Mitt Romney, still the most likely Republican nominee: “to maintain a precarious balance between the full-throated liberalism and conservatism that their respective bases are demanding and the stances that can appeal to the increasing group of independents and shrinking but still pivotal band of moderates.”
For the president, the challenge is subtly steeper still. It involves something other than the struggling economy. He campaigned as a full-throated post-partisan candidate. He would overcome the back-biting and short-sheeting, bridging the blue and red Americas, reason and healing winning the day.
How has that gone? The Gallup survey reinforces how the divide has deepened, by the numbers the president failing to deliver.
As Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, points out in a November essay, also in The New Republic, Obama the candidate pitched a familiar fantasy. He stands in a long line of pols who have pledged to escape the inescapable, stretching back to George Washington, including the Whigs and the Mugwumps, Henry Adams championing the latter as the “party of the center.”
Wilentz notes that Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, positioned as post-partisans, engineering types, most civically virtuous, proved to be two of the least effective presidents of the past century. In other words, it is hard to succeed without jumping into the fray, alert to the dark arts of partisans and that “political parties have been the only reliable vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.”
So put aside dreams of doing Obama one better, a Michael Bloomberg descending from the heights to erase the ugliness. Wilentz cites the staying power of the parties, their valuable role involving such things as the clash and sharpening of ideas to the trust required to work with Congress and operate the executive branch. He finds it telling the tea party hasn’t pursued a third path but has worked within the Republican Party.
To be sure, many Democrats and Republicans would respond: That is just the problem, tea partyers drawing the Republican Party further to the right, deepening the paralysis, making compromise, let alone progress, unattainable.
Recall the recent interview with Eric Cantor, the House minority leader, on the CBS program 60 Minutes. Lesley Stahl asked: “So are you ready to compromise?” He shared that he has “always been ready to cooperate,” or “move things forward where we agree.” That suggests a rather narrow agenda, the give and take of something big or ambitious off the table.
Stahl added that Ronald Reagan compromised. “He never compromised his principles,” Cantor countered. To which Stahl responded: “Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.”
An instant later the Cantor press secretary shouted from the wings: “That just isn’t true.”
Here is what’s missing amid this kind of myth-making: a grip on what must accompany the partisan fray, a commitment to govern, or finding ways to navigate differences.
Give President Obama credit for testing Republican intentions. What has he received in return? Republicans retreating from their own ideas, for instance, an individual mandate and insurance exchanges in health care (personal responsibility and market principles), a program of cap and trade in pollution control (another market mechanism).
Republicans adore Ronald Reagan. Newt Gingrich wants to restore a “Reagan conservative” to the White House. Reagan did raise taxes, many times, albeit ending his tenure with a net reduction in taxes. He did so as part of dealing with huge budget deficits, the formidable politics requiring the support of both parties.
Most noteworthy, Reagan led the way in repairing Social Security, establishing a platform for future fixes. The bipartisan package included taxing benefits for the first time and a higher retirement age, now 66, on its way to 67 in 2027. This still represents an enlightened, pragmatic compromise, sustaining for a generation a program that benefits all of us.
Not possible today?
Yet this deal and others involving tax increases hardly have diminished Reagan’s stature among Republicans.
Eight in 10 Americans now distrust their government. Part of the reason why is this disconnect. Let the partisanship be fierce, but don’t neglect the other element in politics, the point of getting elected: governing, building compromises to overcome disputes and address problems.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.