No polarizing Democratic President–yet

What is ‘polarization’ in the context of the American political parties and presidential form of government? Was WJ Cllinton an example of a polarizing president? Republican partisans would say so. Is GW Bush such an example? Almost anyone (except perhaps the most core Republican partisans) certainly would say so.

I would argue that there has not, in fact, been a polarizing Democratic president–yet. Maybe 2008 will bring one. But we have not seen one yet, certainly not Clinton.

Just because there was intense opposition to Clinton by the core of the Republican Party did not imply that Clinton’s presidency, per se, was polarizing. Clinton always–at least after the 1994 midterm election and especially after impeachment and continuing through to the end of his term–had strong approval from “independent” voters as well as stronger (or less abysmal!) approval from opposite-party partisans than has been the case for Bush at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These indicators are better proxies for the degree of “polarization” than simply the intensity of opposition by the core of the opposing party (or of support by the president’s own party).

Back in October (yes, this planting was germinating for a long time, but it is now spring, after all), I ran across the following item by Harry Levins in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1 (found via Lexis-Nexis, so no link). Mr Levins is reviewing Running Alone by James MacGregor Burns (Basic Books, 272 pages, $26).

Older Americans tend to remember John F. Kennedy in nostalgic terms. But political scientist James MacGregor Burns remembers him as the president who pointed his office in a bad direction — away from political parties and toward political expediency.

In “Running Alone,” he weighs the consequences of this loosening of political ties. Mostly, they’ve been bad, especially for the Democrats, says Burns, who acknowledges upfront that he’s an FDR Democrat and proud of it.

His political identification sets him aside from presidential centrists, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Burns says that like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton used the party when it suited them and otherwise ignored the party, for example, when Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress, despite the opposition of the FDR Democrats in labor unions.

Those who favor this approach (the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, for example) see it as pragmatic and realistic. Those who oppose it (the various hard liberal blocs in the party) see it as opportunistic and cynical.

Burns says Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy let Ronald Reagan pull the Republican Party to the right, where it remains. In Burns’ view, popular support for this truly conservative GOP is deep but narrow. He thinks a Democratic presidential candidate who could unite his party top to bottom across the remaining segments of society could make up in breadth what this approach lacks in depth.

The more centrist, flexible and non-polarizing presidency on the model of Carter–and, yes, WJ Clinton–is more consonant with what we should expect in a presidential democracy, where parties are organized first and foremost to capture a separately elected, fixed-term presidency. The more explicitly partisan, even ideological, approach represented by GW Bush really is inconsistent with the very structure of presidentialism and the incentives it (normally) gives for presidents to construct a different constituency from that of the legislative majorities.

The question heading into 2008 will be whether the next Democratic candidate builds a more specifically partisan constituency. That is, have the dynamics of the party system and the processes for building a presidential constituency shifted fundamentally, or will the Bush presidency turn out to have been an aberration?

If a partisan, polarizing Democratic candidate were to win, he or she likely would have –given the outcome of the 2006 midterms–the necessary congressional majorities for a more partisan governing strategy to be viable. (It would be highly unlikely that Republicans would take back either chamber of Congress, but especially the House, in 2008 at the same time that a Democrat won the presidency.) I do not think a polarizing, highly partisan Democratic presidency on the GWB Republican model is likely, because the Democratic constituency is not as narrow and cohesive as the Republicans’. (Democratic gains in 2006 in some unlikely places would seem to confirm that.) But such a polarizing Democratic administration has become more likely than it formerly was.

This post was originally inspired not only by the review quoted above, but by a post at PoliBlog. There, Steven Taylor and I debated about whether GW Bush and WJ Clinton both are examples of highly polarizing partisan Presidents. I suggested, no, for the reasons indicated above. I do not have the link to the referenced PoliBlog post. Maybe Steven will stop by and find it for us.

0 thoughts on “No polarizing Democratic President–yet

  1. I think Democratic candidates (especially the Clinton candidate!) have the post-1994 Clinton model in mind. If you go partisan (e.g. health care) then you end up with Newt Gingrich, but if you move to the center and even take on a Republican issue (e.g. welfare reform) then your poll numbers improve and you can talk about how bipartisan you are.

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