How presidents polarize
The figure atop this post comes from Frances Lee's "Beyond Ideology," and it shows something interesting: We're in the midst of a decades-long trend in which presidential agenda items take up more and more of Congress's time. Whether that's because presidents take positions on more issues or because Congress is more engaged with the issues they do take positions on is unclear, and sort of irrelevant.
If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues -- that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.
The mechanism for this is pretty clear. As Lee writes, "If a party wants to undermine the case for a president's reelection or his party's continuance in government, its members must find grounds on which to oppose the president's initiatives." If job one of a party's leadership is to win the next election -- and it's pretty clear that both parties hold that view -- then job two is making the other party look bad. And if the other party controls the White House and the agenda, you do that by opposing the agenda and trying to paint the presidency as an out-of-touch failure.
That's why the trend holds when the majority party does not control the White House. As Lee wrote to me in an e-mail, "the Republican-controlled 104th Congress was more occupied with President Clinton's agenda than the Republican Senate was with President Reagan's agenda during the early 80s. In the 104th, of course, Congress was taking a lot of votes to position itself against the president." So even when Congress is interested in obstructing the president's agenda, they still focus on it in order to destroy his presidency.
The implication of this is that for tough issues in a closely divided Senate, the president might want to stay out of things entirely. But that doesn't work, of course ,as the American people -- and the media -- expect a lot of bully pulpit leadership. But that bully pulpit leadership polarizes the other party against the initiative, even when the messaging is effective.
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