Stay out of It, Mr. President

By Klein, Ezra | Newsweek, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Stay out of It, Mr. President


Klein, Ezra, Newsweek


Byline: Ezra Klein

You're Only Deepening the Divide.

The spin on Thursday's White House health-care summit is that it marks a return to politics as it should be practiced: the president leading the legislative process, the two parties talking things out, bipartisanship flowering, order restored.

The reality is rather different. The summit is the product of, not the solution to, the problems afflicting our political process. And for all the bipartisan rhetoric, it's probably going to make the partisanship worse.

For months, members of Congress and the punditocracy have complained that the president needs to step up and take a more active role in the health-care-reform process. They, and we, expect it of him. But the president of the United States is not the president of the United States Congress. He can sign or veto a bill, but that's about it. The president's powers within the legislative process are unofficial and informal. He can give a speech or invite congressional leaders over to the White House for a chat, but he has no firm power over the proceedings. Legislating is the legislature's job.

What the president can do, however, is make that job harder. Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much, but they do agree that Washington is increasingly paralyzed -- by their inability to agree on much. Last week Evan Bayh got so frustrated that he up and quit. "There is too much partisanship and not enough progress," he lamented. "Too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving."

"Too much partisanship and not enough progress" is the sort of airy haiku that passes for profundity in Washington. But why is there so much partisanship and so little progress?

Blame the president, at least in part. According to data gathered by the political scientist Frances Lee, when the president--not this president in particular but any president--decides to take a position on an issue, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. If we're talking about health, labor, defense, or immigration policy, the chances that Democrats and Republicans will stay in their separate corners increase by 20 to 30 percent. On foreign aid and international affairs, the likelihood of a party-line vote increases by more than 65 percent.

The most telling statistic comes when the vote is on so-called nonideological issues. …

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