Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Don't Blame Polarization

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Don't Blame Polarization

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Gridlock Myth" by Michael Barone, in The American Interest, Nov.-Dec. 2010.

DOES AMERICA'S POLARIZED political landscape render bipartisan legislation impossible? Are supermajorities the only way to move beyond gridlock? No, contends Michael Barone, coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Partisanship isn't the reason why politicians don't reach across the aisle--rather, it's the fear that they'll lose their seats.

Over the last 30 years, it has been easier to pass bipartisan legislation "when political voting patterns are stable and most members have reason to believe their seats are reasonably safe."

From 1938 until the late 1970s, when turnover in Congress was low, a loose coalition of centrist Republicans and southern Democrats constituted a reliable voting bloc for many important pieces of legislation. That coalition came undone as liberal Republicans from the Northeast lost their seats and conservative votes in the South shifted to the GOP. After the elections of 1982 and 1984 passed without significant upsets, however, members felt comfortable. In 1985 and 1986, bipartisan majorities passed major legislation on taxes and immigration.

Bipartisanship receded from 1991 to 1995, a period that "saw an upending of political verities." Republicans were thought to have a hold on the presidency, but Bill Clinton took the White House in 1992. Democrats were thought to own Congress, but they lost control in 1994. The rise of Ross Perot and other third-party candidates added to the uncertainty.

The years from 1995 to 2005 tell an interesting story. Pundits decried the bitter partisanship in Washington, but there was a surprising amount of bipartisan legislation. Despite the hot rhetoric, members of Congress didn't feel that their seats were especially endangered. President Clinton was able to pass welfare reform in 1996, and he had a good chance of passing Medicare and Social Security reforms too until the impeachment debacle, Barone says. …

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