Obama’s Problem of Polarization

My fellow columnist and Opinion Editor Alex Potter recently wrote that the unforeseen election of Republican Scott Brown in the traditionally blue state of Massachusetts was “ringing endorsement of the inherent conservatism of the American people.” I would argue that instead, the election was a sign that the American people are fed up with the polarized, partisan politics of Washington.

The election of Scott Brown signals the end of the Democratic supermajority that supposedly enables them to pass anything they want, anytime they want. If only it were that simple . . .

Since taking office, President Obama has had to fight tooth and nail within his own party to pass “radical” legislation such as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the budget. With Brown’s election, the Democrats have announced that they will seek a “scaled-back bill” on health care. They’ve stopped mentioning the cap and trade bill stalled in the Senate altogether. All of these changes have occurred despite the fact that the Democrats still control the Senate by 18 votes.

Most of the media has focused on the consequences of Brown’s election on the Democratic party, entirely forgetting the effects on the Republican party. Now that the Democrats no longer have the ability to push legislation through, the Republican party is going to have to prove that they aren’t just “the party of no.”

So far, they haven’t done too well. The Senate recently defeated a White House proposal to form a bipartisan commission to deal with the debt and deficit. Several Republicans who once co-sponsored the bill voted against it. In the polarized world of Washington, any Republican who is seen as cooperating with the President is likely to face a challenge from his own party in the upcoming primaries.

“Polarization is the twin evil of partisanship,” recently explained Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers.

Baker believes that while partisanship is natural, the real problem comes from the personalization, search for immediate political gain and volume of conflict that characterize polarization.

But our president is not giving up on his promise to change the polarized world of Washington. Last Friday, Jan. 29, Obama attended a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, spending 90 minutes in one of the longest public debates any President has had with a hostile audience.

Defying expectations, it was an incredibly civil debate. Obama complained that the Republicans had painted him as radical while the Republicans countered that the president has failed to listen to any of their ideas. Both sides agreed that they were to blame for the vicious polarization that has marred Obama’s first year in office.

As the New York Times noted, the debate more closely resembled the British tradition where the Prime Minister submits to questions in the House of Commons than anything ever before seen in Washington.

If Republicans and Democrats can keep that spirit of civility then maybe Americans can have not just a president, but agovernment that we can believe in.