The night Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, a number of Republican leaders met for dinner in Washington. Their goal was fairly simple: Figure out how to best deal with this political neophyte who'd swept into office by popular acclaim, a new president who could work with Democratic majorities on both sides of the Hill. The consensus was elegant in its simplicity. Republicans would fight Obama on nearly everything, betting that this obstructionism would be rewarded. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said.
That didn't work, but everything else did. Republicans retook the House in 2010 and held it through the next three elections. The Democrats were obliterated at every level of government, and last month, in part on the strength of skepticism about the ability of government to solve problems, they retook the White House. McConnell achieved limiting the Democrats to two terms of the presidency. Close enough.
It's now the Democrats who find themselves in the position of having to figure out how to deal with oppositional dominance. Quite naturally, the question has been raised of whether the same strategy might bear the same fruit. If the Democrats were to vociferously oppose everything Trump and his allies tried to accomplish, would voters hand them Congress?
To a large extent, the answer to that question hinges on how Democrats would respond to their party taking such a position. Republicans, after all, are generally seen as more resistant to government. Would Democratic obstinance be received the same way?
A few years ago, polling indicated that Democrats were much more likely to want to see compromise from their elected leaders than were Republicans. In 2014, two-thirds of Democrats preferred the idea of compromise compared with only 4-in-10 Republicans. Four years before — and after four fewer years of Republican obstinance that may have had Democrats pining for more comity — the numbers weren't that different. Gallup asked people to rate how much they wanted leaders to work together vs. how much they wanted them to stick to their principles. The figures were similar: 59 percent of Democrats replied with the top two strongest desires for cooperation and 41 percent of Republicans leaned toward standing on principle.
This doesn't mean that those positions are inflexible.
The question was asked of voters fairly explicitly shortly before Election Day in a poll by CNBC. If Hillary Clinton won, how should Hill Republicans respond? And if Trump won, what should Democrats do? In the first case, more than a third of Republicans said that their party's leaders should try to block Clinton's agenda. In the second case, a third of Democrats said the same thing.
In 2010, only 18 percent of Democrats said they thought that their party should be obstinate. What changed?
Well, obviously, the tenant of the White House. Pew Research collected data to show that the idea we raised earlier, that Republicans are more skeptical of government, isn't always the case. Trust in government shifts depending on the person who's running that government. Under George H. W. Bush, Republicans had more trust in government. Under Bill Clinton, it was Democrats. Under George W. Bush, the Republicans again. And under Obama, the Dems.
There's also a correlation between partisanship and an unwillingness to compromise (unsurprisingly). Pew data shows that voters who are more skeptical of the opposition are also more likely to oppose compromise.
In recent years, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders's strong insurgent campaign in the party's primary, Democrats have gotten more willing to say that they're liberal. In 2000, under 30 percent of Democrats described themselves that way. By last year, the number reached 45 percent.
Democrats, in other words, have grown less moderate.
All of which indicates that a decision by the party to dig in its heels wouldn't necessarily meet with opposition from its base. That's not the same thing as winning back the government, of course, but one can certainly draw a direct line from the tea party insurgency that rippled through the Republican Party at the beginning of Obama's first term to the candidacy and the election of Trump.
The Democratic Party from which Obama emerged is different than the party that exists now, and its political position is different, too. Obstinance may not be great for getting things done, but it might be a winning electoral strategy even if the sides are reversed.