With his health-care summit, Obama could make partisanship worse

By Ezra Klein
Sunday, February 21, 2010

The White House health-care summit on Thursday is supposed to mark 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.

Chances are, however, it won't work out that way. The summit is a result of, not the solution to, the problems afflicting national politics. And for all the rhetoric about bipartisanship, it's probably going to make the partisan sniping worse.

For months, members of Congress have complained that the president should take a more active role in the health-care reform process. But the president of the United States is not, as we sometimes seem to think, 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 -- as opposed to after its completion -- are unofficial and informal. He can give a speech or invite congressional leaders to the White House for a chat, but he has no firm control 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, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) got so frustrated that he just 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" being the sort of airy haiku that passes for profundity in Washington these days.)

But why is there so much partisanship and so little progress? At least in part, we can blame the president.

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

The most telling statistic comes when the vote is on "nonideological" issues on which neither party has an obvious position. (Take space exploration -- there's no uniquely liberal take on checking out Mars.) Even these matters are 30 percent more likely to result in a party-line vote when the president mentions his preference. After all, the president is the leader of his party, and the other party can't win unless the public sours on the president. That's not going to happen if the opposition routinely hands him accomplishments.

To get an idea of the cost of cooperation, imagine that the guy in the cubicle next to you is not only competing with you for a promotion, but might lose his job if the boss likes your work. Do you think he's going to sing your praises at the next staff meeting?

People talk a lot about how much the public hates Congress, but their antipathy to the institution isn't very important when they vote. "When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress," writes Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who specializes in elections, "it is opinions of the president's performance that matter." So the opposition party -- whether Democratic or Republican -- has to stomp opinions of the president down into the mud. And it does that by killing his agenda.

That is why bipartisanship is unlikely to take root at Thursday's summit. The more that health-care reform is associated with the president, the less likely it is that any Republicans will support it. At best, the summit won't worsen the situation; the issue is so linked to Obama already that, for GOP lawmakers, supporting him on it would be tantamount to throwing the next election.

In theory, all this suggests that Obama might want to back off a bit. But we've come to expect more from our president. The voters, the media and members of Congress complain if he isn't smack in the center of every legislative initiative. That leaves us two choices: Either we let him fade into the background, or we're going to have to change the rules so that the majority can govern successfully even when it is not in the minority's interest to let that happen. Last week, Bayh suggested dropping the filibuster-proof majority to 55 votes. That's the sort of proposal that could actually do some good. (It's a shame Bayh didn't stick around to see it through.)

Thursday's summit, by contrast, might make for good TV, but it won't solve our problems.

Ezra Klein blogs about economic and domestic policy for The Washington Post at washingtonpost.com/ezraklein.

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