Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pulping the bully approach to presidential leadership V: a counter-argument

Returning once more to Frances E. Lee's demonstration that presidential advocacy of a specific policy increases partisan polarization on that issue: one strand in Lee's data may call in question the notion that Obama can best foster a comprehensive tax/budget reform compromise by keeping a low profile at this stage (because a detailed presidential plan would immediately harden the party battle lines).

Yesterday I noted that according to Lee's statistical analysis in Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship int he U.S. Senate, tax policy is already so polarized by party that there's not that much room for a President to worsen the division. Therefore, presidential advocacy on tax issues has less of a polarizing effect than presidential advocacy on most issues. More generally, presidential input has a more measurable polarizing effect on issues that are not strongly maked by ideology, such as space exploration, than on issues where ideology already clearly divides the parties.

Presidential input increases partisan division by increasing both parties' voting cohesion.  So again, perhaps if the president does not "go first" in laying out a plan for long-term tax/budget reform, he can increase the chances of a bipartisan compromise. But here's the rub: according to Lee's data, on strongly marked ideologial issues presidential input increases his own party's cohesion signficantly more than the opposing party's. For tax policy, from 1991-2004, presidential input increased his own party's cohesion on roll call votes 10.2 points, from 53.7 to 63.9, while slightly reducing opposite party cohesion, from 48.5 to 47.3. 

It's hardly in dispute that in current budget negotiation and debate, Republicans are far more cohesive than the Democrats. Centrist Democrats are vulnerable to the Republican marlarky that drastic cuts to discretionary domestic spending will have a siginficant impact on the long-term debt picture. Obama himself has quasi-endorsed this destructive budget-cutting orgy and has signalled that he'll accept a fair proportion of the House GOP's proposed $61 billion in cuts for what's left of fiscal 2011.  For the longer term, he has not signalled what proportion of deficit reduction he thinks should come from increasing taxes as opposed to reducing spending. It can be strongly argued, as has been argued repeatedly throughout his presidency, that in chasing the chimera of meaningful compromise with Republicans he is abdicating his responsibility to lead and unite his own party, shore up support for mainstream party positions from the party's chronically vulnerable and wavering "centrists," and fully expose Republican folly and bad faith on tax and budgetary issues.

Lee also finds that over the past thirty years the percentage of Congressional votes devoted to presidential agenda items has been rising, and that partisanship is more pronounced when that percentage is high.  Throughout his political career, one of Obama's core messages has been that party polarization is at the heart of political dysfunction in America. Lee's data suggests that the greatest contribution he could make to defusing partisanship is, in a sense, not to lead, at least not as presidents have come to do so in our era -- that is, that he should keep a low profile, shape legislation from behind the scenes, let the Max Baucuses of his party do their thing in Gangs of Six. That is in fact in large part what he's done.  But while the low-touch approach seems to have mitigated against Democratic party cohesion, it has most emphatically not had that effect on Republicans. 

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