During President George W. Bush’s first term, one of his senior political advisers summed up the prevailing philosophy at the White House like this: “This is not designed to be a 55 percent presidency,” he said. “This is designed to be a presidency that moves as much as possible of what we believe into law while holding 50 plus one of the country and the Congress.” Bold ideas that could mobilize his conservative Republican base were prized over efforts to convince independent voters in the center; sharp divisions over the administration’s policies were regarded as proof of Mr. Bush’s decisiveness and willingness to challenge conventional thinking.
THE SECOND CIVIL WAR
How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America
By Ronald Brownstein
484 pages. The Penguin Press. $27.95.
As the veteran political reporter Ronald Brownstein observes in his timely and compelling new book, this is very much how President Bush has governed: “In his congressional strategy he consistently demonstrated that he would rather pass legislation as close as possible to his preferences on a virtually party-line basis than make concessions to reduce political tensions or broaden his support among Democrats.” And in his dealings with both Congress and other nations before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Brownstein goes on, Mr. Bush “sought not to construct a consensus for a common direction on Iraq, but rather to obtain acquiescence for the undeviating direction he had charted in his own mind.”
Mr. Bush’s failure to build a broad coalition of public support would contribute to his precipitous slide in public opinion, as the war bogged down; and his administration’s highly partisan approach to governing would fuel efforts on the part of liberal activists to push the Democratic Party into a more confrontational, adversarial stance as well. Indeed, as Mr. Brownstein notes in “The Second Civil War,” America has entered what Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Mr. Bush in 2004, calls an era of “hyperpartisanship.”
“The ideological differences between the parties are as great as at any time in the past century,” Mr. Brownstein writes. “But the country is split almost exactly in half between the two sides. Deeply and closely divided is an unprecedented and explosive combination.”
While voters for the losing side always feel unrepresented when the other party wins unified control over the government, he says, they used to be able to look to heretics in the majority coalition who championed an approximation of their views, but with waning numbers of these mavericks — i.e., liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats, who moderated their parties’ stands — this option is increasingly unavailable. Moreover, as activists on both sides have come to exert more leverage on their parties, bipartisan cooperation is scorned, and big issues requiring comprehensive solutions (like health care and immigration reform) are sidelined in the standoff.
Although many of these developments might seem obvious to anyone who follows politics, Mr. Brownstein — a longtime political correspondent and columnist for The Los Angeles Times, and now political director of Atlantic Media Company — does a highly nuanced job of dissecting this alarming phenomenon, while eloquently situating it within a historical context and examining its palpable consequences for the country at large.
Mr. Brownstein contrasts the current age of “hyperpartisanship” with the “age of bargaining,” during which Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson (at least until his landslide victory in 1964) worked and negotiated, usually by necessity, with opponents on the other side of the political aisle. While this system tended to make for incremental, rather than revolutionary, reform, Mr. Brownstein says, “it compelled political leaders who held contrasting views and represented differing constituencies to talk and listen to each other.” It could also lead to big, overarching policy making: most notably, a bipartisan strategy for resisting the Soviet Union and contesting the cold war.
During what Mr. Brownstein calls “the age of Transition,” Nixon warred with the Democrats over foreign policy but cooperated with them on many domestic issues, leading to an extension of the Voting Rights Act, the end of the draft, the 18-year-old vote, the Consumer Product Safety Act and a variety of environmental legislation. Reagan’s presidency, he says, “unleashed ideological energies that widened the distance between the parties and escalated the conflicts between them.”
But at the same time, he adds, Reagan’s “political and personal tendencies were integrative, not divisive,” and he “mostly sought not to deepen ideological or partisan differences but to transcend them in an appeal to shared assumptions” about “individualism at home and American exceptionalism in the world.”
As for President Bill Clinton, Mr. Brownstein credits him with trying to rebuild a political majority for the Democratic Party by synthesizing priorities from the left and right and integrating ideas from a broad spectrum of thinkers and interests. But if Mr. Clinton managed some important centrist achievements — including a crime bill, the passage of Nafta and welfare reform — he also personally became (especially in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal) a flash point for controversy, which “accelerated the trend toward a political alignment that divided the nation more along lines of culture than class.”
In fact, Mr. Brownstein argues that the House vote to impeach Mr. Clinton — marked by vociferous partisan confrontation, and the explicit rejection of any compromise (like censure) that might have united the parties and the country — may well signify “the final, full transition into the political era” of hyperpartisanship in which we now live.
In the course of this book Mr. Brownstein astutely examines the many factors that contributed to this development: the emergence in the ’60s and ’70s of interest groups on both the left and right (representing everything from women’s and gay rights to anti-abortion and anti-gun-control interests), which would exert growing influence on Washington; the abandonment of the seniority principle in Congress, which meant, in Mr. Brownstein’s words, that “everyone was judged every day on how often they voted with their party, how much money they raised for their colleagues, and how reliably they stood with their ‘team’ in rhetorical firefights against the other side”; the increasing homogenization within each of the parties, which saw a widening gap between Republicans and Democrats; and the growing partisanship of the media with the ascendance of talk radio, Internet blogs and cable news channels like Fox News.
In describing the history of partisanship in this country Mr. Brownstein writes with both an authoritative understanding of the political dynamics in Washington and a plain-spoken common sense. He points out the practical dangers of hyperpartisanship — how it has prevented America’s leaders from agreeing on everything from a comprehensive immigration plan to a strategy for reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil to a long-term plan for securing Social Security. And he reminds us that while the country itself is not more divided than it has been in the past (especially when compared, say, with the 1960s or the 1860s), the nation’s current political system accentuates differences instead of bridging them.
In contemplating the possibility of building a political system that would be “less confrontational and more productive than today’s,” Mr. Brownstein explores a host of suggestions, including term limits for Supreme Court justices, the opening of all party primaries to independents, and the formation of a viable third party. Some of these suggestions may seem unrealistic, given the current state of politics. But the low approval rates for both the Bush White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress, combined with a growing conviction that the country is now off-track (an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month showed that 74 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction), attest to the public’s dissatisfaction with legislative gridlock and poisonous fights over national security, social issues and Supreme Court appointments.
In the long term, Mr. Brownstein writes toward the end of this sobering book, “the party that seeks to encompass and harmonize the widest range of interests and perspectives is the one most likely to thrive. The overriding lesson for both parties from the Bush attempt to profit from polarization is that there remains no way to achieve lasting political power in a nation as diverse as America without assembling a broad coalition that locks arms to produce meaningful progress against the country’s problems.”