Is 2008 a Post-Partisan Year?

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

June 10, 2008

The speculation these days is that American politics may be at the dawn of a “post-partisan” age. The profound philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans is said to be narrowing, and a new era of bipartisan comity just around the corner. Exhibit A: Witness the rise of two seeming centrists as the presidential front-runners, McCain and Obama.

Not so fast. A chasm continues to separate the parties on salient issues. For all the relatively moderate-sounding tenor of the campaigns so far, the substantive contrast between the candidates is deep and stark—arguably sharper than between contenders in the last two presidential elections.

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry spoke of “winning” the war in Iraq, not about a firm timetable for pulling American combat troops out. Nor did he champion high-level discussions, no preconditions asked, with America’s nastiest foes. Barack Obama’s stance on these important matters clashes head-on with McCain’s. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore (whose running mate was Senator Joe Lieberman) flirted with populism in some of his rhetoric. But, unlike Obama, Gore never distanced himself from NAFTA, one of the Clinton administration’s signature achievements. Neither Kerry nor Gore proposed plans for universal health care coverage, now a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda.

On the Republican side, McCain tilts more to the right than did George W. Bush eight years ago. Back then, the GOP’s standard-bearer was running as a “compassionate conservative,” vowing to enlarge the federal role in education, expand Medicare, and more. The McCain campaign, which has largely stopped short of promising further embellishments of the welfare state, bears a greater resemblance to Ronald Reagan in 1980 than to Bush in 2000.

The ostensibly orthodox party lines of the McCain and Obama candidacies might eventually melt away when either of these men becomes president. A healthy discount factor should always be applied to campaign rhetoric. Yet, one doubts that either candidate would be able to disown with impunity his clearest campaign promises. Obama, for example, has accorded himself precious little wiggle-room in his commitment to withdraw expeditiously from Iraq. Similarly, McCain has not left himself much space to renege on such matters as his pledge to extend (deficits notwithstanding) the Bush administration’s tax reductions. Powerful constituencies in the respective party bases will hold these leaders to their word, or at least punish them if they stray. Ask George H.W. Bush what happened to a president who first uttered “read my lips” and then tried to say, in essence, “I changed my mind.”

So, two notes of caution: Don’t discount campaign positions entirely, and don’t be too beguiled by the style or tone in which they get packaged. President Bush came to the White House claiming to be “a uniter, not a divider.” The spirit of the slogan had been heard before. As a presidential candidate in 1968, Richard M. Nixon, too, had told the nation that it needed a leader who would “unite America.” But in both cases it was just a matter of time before the talk of unity, change and new politics faded, and old partisan polemics resurfaced with a vengeance.

Why the polarization of our parties has become a firm fixture in American politics, and if anything has intensified, is a long story that’s been the focus of a three-year joint study by the Brookings and Hoover institutions. The central finding of the study is that the roots of our polarized politics lie not only in the postures of political elites–such as contestants appealing to the staunchly liberal or conservative partisans in nominating primaries and caucuses, delegates attending party conventions, politicians elected to Congress in safely liberal or conservative states or districts, and so forth. Polarization now also runs quite deep within the mass electorate. There, Democratic and Republican voters remain very much at odds on a significant range of questions—everything from how leniently to treat undocumented immigrants to what America’s role in the world should be.

The share of genuinely conservative Democrats has dwindled, as has the share of liberal Republicans. Thus the two parties are more ideologically coherent than they were a generation ago, finally fulfilling Barry Goldwater’s wish: “a choice, not an echo.” The great majority of voters now align their preferences consistently with the public philosophies of one side or the other. And the voters increasingly inhabit communities with like-minded people. So, for example, majorities in far fewer congressional districts wind up splitting loyalties between Democratic and Republican candidates for office. In the last national election, fully 84 percent of the congressional districts that had sided with a given party’s presidential candidate in 2004 elected the same party’s congressional candidate two years later in the local House race. All but a relatively few districts, have become more predictably “red” or “blue.”

In this bimodal setting, where the center of the spectrum has shrunk, it should not be surprising if dreams of a post-partisan reconciliation or a centrist convergence remain, like it or not, somewhere over the rainbow.