Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Party Polarization and the Ascendance of Bipartisan Posturing as a Dominant Strategy in Presidential Rhetoric

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Party Polarization and the Ascendance of Bipartisan Posturing as a Dominant Strategy in Presidential Rhetoric

Article excerpt

How do changes in the intensity of party conflict shape presidents' public presentations of self? Are presidents' public statements about parties and partisanship consistent with their political maneuvers behind the scenes? When do presidents have incentives to obfuscate about their party leadership efforts? Given the centrality of the presidency in the American political system, answering these questions is a pressing task for analysts concerned about the practice of American democracy. Unfortunately, in spite of considerable interest in the causes and consequences of today's partisan battles, we currently have little systematic evidence about how changes in partisan polarization over time affect the relationship between presidents' public rhetoric and their private actions in the partisan sphere (Cameron 2002; Cohen 2011).

This article seeks to set an agenda for studying the relationship between partisan polarization and presidents' rhetorical strategies, employing a case study of the 1977-2012 period--an era of rapidly intensifying partisan polarization--to develop and test a novel theory of presidential party rhetoric. Drawing on a new data set of every public presidential statement about one or both political parties in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (PPPUS) over the period 1977-2012--more than 21,000 statements in all--I investigate how presidential rhetoric about parties and partisanship has evolved during a period of intensifying partisan polarization. My research reveals a dramatic upsurge in bipartisan rhetoric--and a concomitant decline in partisan rhetoric--by both Democratic and Republican presidents over the past several decades, corresponding with the rise in partisan polarization among party activists and elected officials.

Then, using quantitative comparisons and historical process tracing to interpret these trends, I argue that presidents' increasing invocation of bipartisan themes in their public rhetoric about parties and partisanship over the 1977-2012 period reflects an effort to cope with partisan polarization and reach out to the millions of citizens disaffected by rancorous partisan conflict (Harbridge and Malhotra 2011; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002; Milkis, Rhodes, and Charnock 2012). While recent presidents have held very different political ideologies and have experienced very different governing opportunities, they have all presided in an era of intensifying partisan polarization. Faced with intractable conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the trajectory of domestic and foreign policy, recent presidents have increasingly sought to rise above the fray of partisan politics in order to present a more congenial image, appealing to disaffected citizens in order to increase their leverage with Congress, the mass media, and important interest groups.

However, I do not claim that recent presidents have genuinely sought a more consensual politics. To put matters simply, these presidents have become increasingly bipartisan in their public rhetoric since the late 1970s, but they have definitely not become either more ideologically moderate (Bailey 2007; Wood 2009) or more inclined to forgo subterranean party-building activities (Galvin 2010; Milkis and Rhodes 2007; Milkis, Rhodes, and Charnock 2012; Skinner 2009) during this time period. My analysis suggests that recent presidents have used bipartisan themes both to obscure their own ideological positions and to create a positive contrast with a highly partisan Congress. I refer to this rhetorical stance as "bipartisan posturing" in order to convey its strategic character.

In what follows I provide extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence of bipartisan posturing, and cast doubt on several alternative theories about the nature and development of presidential partisanship. As I suggest, in the contemporary period, the dramatic ascendance of the strategy of bipartisan posturing is worrisome. …

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