Thursday, January 29, 2009

Can You Have Bi-Partisanship When You're Highly Polarized???

Today’s big story is the House’s passage of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill without a single Republican vote. The 244-188 vote saw all 177 Republicans vote against the package of tax cuts and spending increases aimed at job creation, infrastructure improvement, and other investments. In the early days of his administration, Obama had made numerous attempts at reaching some accord with the Republican membership, including visiting the members on Capitol Hill and engaging them in a wide ranging discussion and debate about the legislation. For those looking for a new era of bi-partisan cooperation, these early efforts were greatly welcomed. With yesterday’s vote, though, many of these same people are asking whether anything in Washington has changed. While some commentary has scolded Republican House members for talking a good game of bi-partisanship without being willing to walk the walk, a larger question must be explored—one that goes to the heart of the modern day Congress. Namely, why would we have expected many Republican votes in the first place???

Over the last several election cycles, we’ve seen the membership of the House of Representatives become increasingly polarized. This has been due to changes in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses. For the Democrats, the decline of the party’s fortunes in the south over the past generation or so has led to the virtual disappearance of the southern conservative (often rural) Democrat. As these seats became solidly Republican the Democratic caucus became increasingly liberal ideologically. While we’ve seen a slight reversal of this trend with the election of some more Blue Dogs recently, the Democrats nonetheless remain, as a whole, a more liberal bunch than their predecessors. For the Republicans we’ve also seen a geographic shift with the emptying of New England GOP seats as well as losses in the industrial Midwest. Thus, the GOP ranks have become increasingly conservative ideologically. As a consequence there are fewer members who find themselves occupying the middle range of the political spectrum—and thus acting as potential votes for the opposite party from time to time.

This polarization has also been aided, many argue, by the redistricting process that tends to create safe districts for members of both parties. With little fear of a serious electoral challenge, members don’t perceive any cost to adhering to their party’s agenda as opposed to their constituents’. Both agendas, are in essence, the same. To get a sense of this, I’ve taken a look at the last two House Republican caucuses. What we’re seeing is that the Republican members in office now have become quite safe in their re-election, despite going through two pretty wretched cycles. When defining what makes a member potentially vulnerable for defeat, political scientists have tended to use either 55% or 60% of the vote in one’s most recent campaign as a warning sign. So, for example:

In 2008, 37 Rep. House members received 55% of the vote or less
In 2006, 41 Rep. House members received 55% of the vote or less

In 2008, 38 Rep. House members received 55-60%
In 2006, 60 Rep. House members received 55-60%

Thus, close to 60% of the House Republican caucus received over 60% of the vote in 2008. Overall, 2006 seemed to be considerably worse than 2008 in putting members in the “danger zone.” Another way of looking at these numbers is to look at each member’s performance in 2008 compared to 2006. Here again, we see more members doing better. In 2008, 79 House Republicans got a higher % than they did in 2006; 66 got a lower %; and 9 received the same %.

So, for your average House Republican, despite the fact that your party has taken a beating over the past two cycles, their individual performance hasn’t been quite as bad. While a number of members have been swept out of office—thus Democratic gains of 32 and 21 seats—those that are left would seem to be quite secure. So perhaps expecting large swaths of them to start voting Democratic was premature. While trying to be bi-partisan is certainly admirable, the distance that Obama was trying to cover may have been too far. One might also argue that given the cushion he had given the large Democratic majority, he could afford to make bi-partisan overtures and still be rebuffed. The Stimulus bill still passed handily.

One group of members that we might want to focus on more closely, especially when the Stimulus bill comes back to the House for final passage, is the freshman class. The Republicans have 23 members who have never been through this type of process before and for whom the Stimulus vote was their first consequential decision. When we look at this group we see a much more insecure bunch. Of these 23 members, 13 received less than 55% last year and another 6 received between 55 and 60%. With their no votes they have served to put a big target on their backs.

When yesterday’s vote took place, I was reminded of a similar vote that took place at the beginning of the last Democratic presidency. In 1993, the House vote on President Clinton’s $500 billion deficit reduction package transpired in a very similar fashion. With every Republican vote against the bill, the legislation managed to pass by a single vote. The story of this vote is one I use in the first lecture I give as a part of my course on the U.S. Congress. With the vote of freshman House Democrat Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, the budget resolution squeaked through giving the new president his first major legislative victory. In making her decision, Mezvinsky angered a large segment of her suburban, affluent constituency. Because of the bill’s provisions to increase taxes on upper income earners, she immediately put herself in electoral jeopardy. Sure enough, in the 1994 Republican landslide, Mezvinsky was a casualty.

The reason I bring this story up is because Mezvinsky, like all freshmen members, was just learning how to do her job when this vote took place. Unlike her more senior colleagues, she didn’t have much experience in determining how her constituents would react to her vote and how she could regain their trust. The big difference between the 1993 vote and yesterday's, of course, is that the Clinton package raised taxes while the Obama bill cuts them. While it has been proven dangerous to vote for a bill that hits your constituents in the wallet, we don't know whether there's a cost in voting against a bill that will add money to them. This uncertainty is no doubt running through many of the current freshmen after yesterday’s vote. While we’ll have to wait a while to see how their votes play out both at home and in Washington, you can be sure they will be getting a lot of attention—attention they’d no doubt rather avoid—over the coming weeks.

Tomorrow, will be at the Republican National Committee meeting in Washington to get a sense of how the party is grappling with the state they find themselves in. We'll report back, with special focus on the election of the new party Chairman.

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