Obama, Corker, and Bipartisanship

By Ryan Powers

Both the Hill and Roll Call have accounts today of an apparently testy exchange between Obama and Sen. Corker at a lunchtime, closed-door meeting yesterday:

“I said, ‘I got to tell you something, there’s a degree of audacity in you being here today,’” Corker said, recalling his exchange with the president. “If you look at your three major initiatives they were almost all done on party-line votes,” Corker told Obama. “I feel we’re all props here today.

“Just last week you engineered a very partisan vote,” Corker added. “I would just like for you to explain to me, when you get up in the morning, and when you come over to lunch like this, how you reconcile that duplicity.”

Obama, of course, has worked very hard the last two years to reach out to Republicans. And Corker, if we take him as his word, would really like to cooperate (he sort of tried it seems on financial reform). But Obama’s failure to secure bipartisanship is hardly duplicitous. The fact of the matter is Obama and Corker are dealing with structural forces that are much larger than themselves. Alan Abramowitz documents this in a paper that he recently presented here at William and Mary, arguing that the partisan divide in Washington is simply a reflection of the partisan divide in the voting public — and not just the political elite:

The gradual disappearance of conservative Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans has had a clear impact on the electoral coalitions of Democratic and Republican Senate candidates. … [O]ver the past four decades on the [American National Election Study] 7- point liberal-conservative scale…the gap between the average location of Democratic and Republican voters has more than doubled, from .8 units to 1.7 units. In 1972, conservative identifiers made up 30 percent of Democratic Senate voters and 43 percent of Republican Senate voters. In 2008, conservative identifiers made up 19 percent of Democratic Senate voters and 72 percent of Republican Senate voters.

Abramowitz concludes, “Rather than indicating that there is a ‘disconnect’ between politicians and voters, polarization in Congress actually indicates that Democratic and Republican members are accurately reflecting the views of the voters who elected them.” He also suggests that the effect of this is more obvious in the Senate than in the House due to reliance on unanimous consent and the filibuster.

It seems that the sooner Obama et al recognize this political reality and learn to work with in it, the better. Recent weeks suggest, however, that the President is getting there.