Saturday, March 12, 2011

Can a president reduce partisan division?

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  In trying to discern Obama's intentions and strategy regarding long term tax/budget reform, I have referred repeatedly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) to Frances E. Lee's demonstration that presidential advocacy on a given issue, particularly when put forward in the SOTU, increases partisan division on that issue.  While the theory makes intuitive sense, and is demonstrated in Lee's Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Parisanship in the U.S. Senate by thorough statistical analysis of roll-call votes from 1981--2004, one caveat is in order. Tax policy is already so polarized by party that there's not that much room for a President to worsen the division:
Presidential involvement has little influence on partisanship on votes dealing with social issues and the distribution of the tax burden...These are clearly party-defining issues regardless of whether a president demands action on them. Generally speaking, taxes and abortion sparked partisan division in the Senate at approximately the same levels regardless of their presidential agenda status (p. 83).

According to Lee's tabulations, party division on Senate roll call votes from 1981-2004 concerning distribution of the tax burden was 66 overall, and 71 on tax legislation in which "presidential leadership" was exerted. That's in contrast to nonideological issues, where party differences are relatively small until a president advocates a specific policy, at which point the parties usually divide. Partisan division on votes concerning space, science and technology, for example, averages 30.5 points higher on votes over legislation on which the president has exerted leadership than on votes on which he has not.

One might conclude that in the pre-polarized tax/spending arena, the president has little to lose by drawing the battle lines clearly and fighting it out in the arena of public opinion.  Why shouldn't Obama lay out a tax/deficit plan somewhere left of the Bowles-Simpson plan and throw his energy into hammering the devastation to be wrought by the GOP's wholly unnecessary cuts to discretionary domestic spending -- and to the decimation of Medicare and Social Security required by the "no new taxes" pledge that over 90% of Congressional Republicans have signed? What's he got to lose?

Not much -- if you accept the proposition that he has little chance of shepherding comprehensive tax/budget reform to passage before 2012.  That may be a reasonable assumption. Consider this boast by Grover Norquist, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein:
Twenty-five years ago, I created the Taxpayer Protection Pledge at the federal level. Then I brought it to the state and local level. About 97 percent of the Republicans in the House and 85 percent in the Senate have signed on, and the number of candidates who have taken the pledge is even higher. It’s become a party position.
 Here is the pledge text:
I...pledge...that I will
One, Oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/businesses; and
Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
The gist of the tax talk in current bipartisan Gang of Six negotiations in the Senate is to lower marginal rates while vastly reducing "deductions and credits," as Norquist's pledge puts it, to an extent that hundreds of billions and maybe trillions of new revenue will be raised over the course of ten years. GOP Gang of Six members Saxby Chambliss and Tom Coburn have been intimating, as I have tracked in several posts (1, 2, 3, 4), that they want to break out of Norquist's box.  Perhaps...but how could they ever take the House with them? The House GOP is as locked in an absurdist ideology as the pre-Gorbachev Politboro.  Boehner may be a rational individual under the facade, but how could he ever bring the 97% of his caucus that have signed Norquist's insane pledge into any deal that raises taxes?

On the other hand, as Ezra Klein has pointed out, the political environment is likely to get worse for Democrats before it gets better. It's possible to imagine Democrats picking up House seats in 2012 if the economy improves. It's hard to imagine them holding onto the Senate, where they have many more seats to defend than the Republicans do.  Meanwhile, the structural deficit time bomb will continue to tick. Obama, whose signature strength and/or fatal flaw seems to be  a bottomless faith that he can bring adversaries to rational compromise, seems to have bet that he can/must work with the current GOP on a comprehensive deal.

If that is his bet, then it doesn't matter if the partisan divide on taxes is only modestly exacerbated by "presidential leadership." His job is radically reduce the divide -- ultimately, for practical purposes, to erase it on the legislation that matters. He certainly can't afford to exacerbate it.

Once again, then, the paradox: if you think that the President should be going all-out for a tax/budget reform deal before the 2012 election, you almost have to buy into his current low-profile, you-go-first strategy. If you think that such a deal is a wandering fire, then it makes sense to yearn for strong presidential "leadership" now. But that would be leadership in ideological warfare, with the endgame postponed post-2012.

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