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The ugly truth: why presidential leadership can't solve gridlock

Polarization, gridlock, debt-ceiling crises, government shutdowns, filibusters — nobody would describe Washington as finally coming to a post-partisan era of cooperation. But how did it get this way? Ezra Klein talks with Frances Lee, Professor of American Politics at University of Maryland and author of Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate.

Ezra Klein: You wrote a sentence that is really foundational to how I think about politics, but that I also think of as an incredibly scary sentence. It's basically that every time the president succeeds it hurts the minority party and every time the president fails it helps the minority party.

Frances Lee: The incentives definitely are against cooperation.

If you support the initiatives that the president proposes or cut a deal with the president such that both parties vote in favor of that proposal, then it becomes hard to say why we should have a change in power.

The incentives definitely are against cooperation

Layered on top of this intense two-party competitiveness has been a sorting out of constituencies so that very few Republicans represent districts that went for President Obama. They don't have much reason to distance themselves from their party.

How do you say why are we different and why are we better if you are coming to agreement? If you're cooperating then it suggests to the public that things are working just fine. And it undercuts the whole logic of your campaign against the President or the President's party's continuation in office.

So it confers legitimacy on the opposition party and on the power structure as it currently stands. There was a political scientist named Charles O. Jones, who wrote about the Republican Party back in the 1970s. And he criticized the party for suffering from what he called a minority party mentality. He said that that they were too willing to cut deals for little crumbs they might get from the other party because that that was all they could really expect to do.

Ezra Klein: That minority party mentality seems to be something that the Republican Party has solved.

Frances Lee: It's lost. And after Democrats lost their majority, first in 1980 in the Senate and then 1994 in the House, they never saw themselves as a permanent minority. They always saw themselves as in striking distance of a return to power. And there was good reason for them to think that because the margin of control was narrow by historical standards.

And so we've had two parties since 1980 and especially since 1994 that see themselves as potential majority parties. We inhabit a remarkably competitive period in American history. Every election holds out the possibility of a change in party control of one institution or another. This makes American politics more zero sum than usual. Whatever benefits one party harms the other.

This is not a normal set of circumstances in American politics. It's been normal for us basically since 1980. But if you look at the broad sweep of U.S. history, after the Civil War the Republicans were the dominant party in American politics. After the New Deal and up through 1980 the Democrats were the dominant party. And so elections were a lot less interesting. Politicians were much less focused on elections during a time when there was less prospect for real change in power.

Ezra Klein: Right, if Mitch McConnell went to voters this year and he said, "You know what? President Obama's done a pretty good job. He had a very reasonable stimulus, included a lot of tax cuts. We thought that was really terrific. We appreciated him reaching out like that. Obamacare, he really brought in a lot of our ideas into that law, the individual mandate, the use of private insurance, there's no public option. He's really done a good job reaching out. We've been proud to partner with him on these legislative initiatives. Vote for Republicans." That is not a pitch that would work.

Frances Lee: It's almost laughable. If the minority party consistently bargains with the administration to come up with proposals that both parties can support, then what's their case for a change of power? How do they make their case?

Ezra Klein: There's an interesting tension in Washington where we treat politics as a kind of an epic drama in which the president is the lead actor. And people want to see things happening from the president.

If people care about immigration be reformed they want the president to lead on immigration. If they care about the budget deficit they want the president to lead on the budget deficit. But your research says that for the president to do what people think of as leading - going public, making big speeches, getting people is excited - can actually be harmful to passing his agenda because when the president associates himself with an idea it becomes more important for the minority party to make sure that idea doesn't pass.

Frances Lee: The president is the single most understandable symbol of national government for the broad public. And so that's to a great extent how the public interprets Washington politics. You know, is the president doing well or not doing well? That's the reason why the news media embrace that particular approach to covering Washington politics is because it fits very well with how Americans make sense of what's happening in Washington.

The system may not be self-correcting

Ezra Klein: Why do you think then that we are so bad at picking up on this pattern? It is completely predictable the way this goes. You begin with an issue. There's a lot of talk of maybe something getting done and then eventually the issue polarizes as the two parties kind of figure out their positions on it.

And yet in, in Washington, among people who watch politics every single day, there is an utterly omnipresent belief that if only the president or the majority leader or somebody acted correctly then cooperation would be possible. Cooperation is always just out of our grasp. We don't think of it as something that the system really doesn't allow, we think of it as something that individual actors fail to achieve.

Frances Lee: I think part of it is just that many of the opinion leaders of Washington grew up in a time where the parties were less competitive and less sorted out such that, there were more incentives for politicians to engage in cross-party negotiating. So they look back with nostalgia to that time and they assume that we can get back there. The idea that there's something in the system that gets in the way of that is not an attractive thing to think about. It suggests that the system may not be self-correcting.

Ezra Klein: A really important point in your research is that American politics has, in fundamental ways, really changed over the last 40 or 50 years. The American political system of 1960, of 1970, maybe even of the early 80s where famously Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan were having drinks, is not the system we have today. Expand on that a little bit.

Cooperation is always just out of our grasp

Frances Lee: Every time we have hold a presidential election we see this red-blue map. You know, that is not historically how presidential elections used to look. It used to be far more common for a single party and a single presidential candidate to win all across the country. Then that would make it much easier for him to then seek out and get cross-party support because many of the members of the opposing party represented states and districts that went the other way and voted for the president.

As we've become more geographically polarized we don't have politicians who have reasons to look for ways to blur the party lines. Instead they have more reason to dig in and differentiate themselves.

When Obama is contrasted with LBJ, for example, people often forget that Democrats had roughly two-to-one margins over Republicans during that period. And even though many of those Democrats were conservative Democrats they had a political interest in not humiliating a president of the Democratic Party.

Ezra Klein: So we've talked so far here about the theory. And one of the interesting things about your work is I think you've proved this theory in a really clever way.

What you did was you looked at what happened when the president took a position on non-controversial issues. You looked at things like whether we should send a man to Mars. Could you outline some of that research?

You can even see situations where the parties completely reverse positions based on who controls the presidency

Frances Lee: When presidents give a State of the Union Address, the opposing party in Congress goes line by line looking for opportunities to rebut it. And so the parties will come together in opposition to the president on issues where there had not previously been clearly defined party lines. Or you can even see situations where the parties completely reverse positions based on who controls the presidency.

You might recall the Democrats were very strongly against No Child Left Behind and they ran against that more or less the whole time that George W. Bush was in office. If you go back to the period when President Clinton was in office, Clinton proposed a less ambitious version of No Child Left Behind and it was Republicans who opposed testing. Local controls of local schools was the watchword and Democrats supported the president on those issues.

It's very easy to take positions as inevitable. It's easy to say that opposing No Child Left Behind, well, that's just a liberal position, as if it was set in stone because Democrats were largely doing that during the George W. Bush years. But notice we've heard very little about No Child Left Behind since the George W. Bush years. Much less focus on that among Democrats as it became less useful as a cudgel against a Republican administration.

Ezra Klein: This is actually one reason why I sometimes get frustrated by the labels conservative and liberal.

Right now if I say somebody's a liberal, you know what I mean. But over any even reasonably short period of time, it becomes much more complicated. Today, a liberal is somebody who thinks the individual mandate is a constitutional idea, and probably a good idea. And a conservative is someone who thinks the individual mandate is an absolutely abhorrent affront to the Constitution.

Whereas in 1994 a conservative was someone in many cases who supported the Senate Republican plan that had an individual mandate in it. And a liberal thought that was a pretty ridiculous way to do health care demanding that people buy private insurance.

And you see it on the NSA, that in the Bush years the idea of broad based surveillance was something liberals and Democrats in the era were appalled by. And if you actually look at polls around surveillance now, folks who self-identify as liberal are more comfortable with it than folks who self-identify as conservatives.

And so liberal and conservative end up shifting around and what a liberal believes now is maybe not what they believed ten years ago or a conservative now is not what it was ten years. And I find it genuinely frustrating.

Frances Lee: This is the natural way party politics plays out.

Ezra Klein: And this where I think, where political science begins to move into political psychology. Because one of the things I think is so interesting is the psychological process behind what you're talking about. Of every explanation for human behavior in Washington the most overused in my view is cynicism.

Almost nobody — no politician, no staffer — walks out and takes a position they believe is wrong. Because it feels bad to do that and people don’t like to feel like scummy used car salesmen. They come up with highly complex reasoning and rationalizations for why it’s right.

But nobody ever says, "I am for this because in the next election I would like my party to win." People are only for things because having done a thorough and honest look at the true evidence on this issue, any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that whatever I need to believe is the thing that is the correct thing to believe.

Frances Lee: Well governing is difficult and it involves tradeoffs. So as you look at it closely and especially as you look at it with a skeptical eye, there will always be reasons to question a policy the president is putting forward. Your political interests may prompt you to do this but it doesn’t take very long before you see the flaws in the president’s proposal and you can come to a considered judgment that those problems outweigh the benefits and that we need to get a president of our party back in office.