For all their pageantry and excitement, the party conventions are among the most tightly scripted events in American politics. Yet surprises still happen.
One of the biggest was Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. On the morning of his speech, a headline in a Philadelphia newspaper read, “Who the Heck is This Guy?” A day later, his vision of a politics beyond party labels made Obama, then the Illinois Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, instantly famous.
“There are those who are preparing to divide us,” he told his audience, “the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America.” He added: “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?”
Eight years later, as President Obama prepares to address the convention once again, the politics of hope have given way to political necessity. Obama’s famous speech presaged much of what he later sought to accomplish as president -- moving the country toward universal health care, imposing stricter carbon emissions. Yet the harmony he described never materialized.
Obama arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina yesterday in time to watch the convention speech of former President Bill Clinton, who found a way to work with Republicans. As Obama seeks to lay claim to another term, one question for voters is whether things would get better or worse if they re-elect him.
There’s no reason to expect partisanship to worsen regardless of who wins in November. Neither Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney nor Obama would have a Senate supermajority to force through bills. Romney’s decision to reject running mate Paul Ryan’s cuts to Medicare and plow $716 billion back into the system signals that he doesn’t intend to make a frontal assault on the cherished entitlement program. And lockstep opposition from either party would be much harder to pull off, as Congress confronts a series of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts after the election.
“Politicians are pragmatic,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist. “If the politics of partisanship and obstructionism prevail, I think that will encourage more of the same. If it fails, I think at least for some Republicans that will prompt a moment of reflection.”
‘Threat From Mars’
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos doubts the parties will come together. “I don’t think the people of Earth will unite unless there’s a threat from Mars,” he says. “We’re choosing between two very different paths here. That does not allow for compromise. The way I see it resolved is we either choose one version of one-party government or another. Or we wait for the threat from Mars.”
There are three big reasons why American politics turned so sharply in the direction opposite Obama’s intent.
The president himself blames Republican obstructionism and says it may not last. “If we’re successful in this election,” he told supporters at a Minneapolis fundraiser in July, “the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that.”
Yet Obama failed to recognize that the cooperation he promised to deliver was something the opposition could withhold. Even as the White House was publicly musing about winning 70 or 80 votes for a stimulus package, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was planning to deny Republican support for practically every White House measure.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell said in an interview before the 2010 elections. “When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”
Republicans highlighted their disagreement and succeeded in turning much of the country against Obama and his party within the year.
In a second Obama term, Democrats wouldn’t be so naive. Even so, Axelrod says the president’s original vision remains undimmed: “He still believes there’s more that unites us as Americans than divides us.”
The second reason Obama couldn’t usher in an era of comity is that he was struggling against a powerful historical current.
Most Americans like the idea of the parties working together. But as Keith T. Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has documented, polarization has been growing steadily for more than a century.
In “The Roots of the Polarization of Modern U.S. Politics,” Poole analyzed 14 million congressional votes and concluded that polarization “is higher than at any time since the late 19th century.”
He found that the main cause was economic regulation, which lies at the heart of every major Obama initiative -- health-care reform, financial regulation, a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions.
Historically speaking, says Poole, “Obama was walking into a buzzsaw.”
Had he granted Republicans more influence, Obama might have fared better. His decision not to is the third reason partisanship intensified. Doing so would have meant curtailing his ambitions.
Wasting a Crisis
Instead, he followed his chief of staff’s advice that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” pushing through a raft of Democratic proposals and accelerating the trend toward partisan extremity now characteristic of Congress.
Obama’s inability to bring about a full economic recovery, coupled with the heightened partisanship, has caused a phenomenon that pollster J. Ann Selzer calls “anticipointment.”
“The polarization we see in the electorate has two components,” she says. “It’s both that the edges are farther apart, and also a growing unhappiness that that’s occurring. It’s paradoxical. Voters say, ‘This isn’t what we want, but we keep getting more of it.’”
Obama once looked as if he could change this. “What he represented symbolically as well as rhetorically,” Selzer says, “was the way in which we might break that gridlock and come together. On election night, there was probably more togetherness than there’s been in a long time. And it lasted about a nanosecond.”
This has left Obama notionally committed to hope and change, while campaigning in a manner that makes clear they have taken a back seat. In July, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, almost every English-language television ad broadcast by his campaign was negative.
Castellanos says the “polarizing strategy” of Obama’s campaign shows he’s willing to divide the nation. “You polarize rich against poor, employer against employee, men against women, Anglos against Hispanics,” he says. “You end up with a hugely divided and maybe ungovernable country.”
How could a re-elected Obama bridge the partisan divide? History doesn’t offer much in the way of guidance.
“You can depolarize,” Poole says, but usually only when one party collapses. “I thought the financial meltdown would produce some kind of realignment toward the left,” he says. “But it did not.”