Political Hay

America’s Political Seesaw

It affects both parties as they maneuver to balance their presidential and congressional prerogatives.

By 10.16.13

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Washington’s fiscal fight is highlighting Republican divisions, but Democrats have been having them too. There is nothing new or rare about either. Such divisions are inherent to America's political system. Each party perpetually sits astride a political seesaw, trying to successfully balance presidential and congressional power. 

America's winner-take-all elections serve to create a two-party political system. Because a majority guarantees victory, our politics inevitably devolves into two-party contests -- the means most likely to garner a majority. Although the two parties have changed over time, and in policy, the dynamics generating bipolar contests remains. 

Because a majority is the goal, each party finds it necessary to assemble a coalition from a wide variety of sources -- many of whom have divergent interests. While divisions may not readily appear in particular state and local elections, they are quite pronounced at the national level.

Today, what best serves to conceal a party's national divisions is holding the presidency. While not originally intended by the Constitution’s framers, the president now dominates American government and its politics. As such he demands support from his party, which knows well his value to them: the inside track in the lawmaking, message shaping, media accessing, and money raising processes.

Thus the president becomes de facto head of his party and has a unique opportunity to impose a discipline -- based on need, if not sincere desire. 

The party without the presidency lacks this advantage over its inherent divisions. Even Congressional party leaders find themselves in a situation of being only somewhat better than one among equals. Optimistically assuming they can enforce discipline in their particular chamber, they cannot do so in the other -- let alone in party organizations across the country.

It therefore takes a president to instill a modicum of party discipline, especially in our modern system where every politician has great potential to be a free agent. The current fiscal fight is a case in point.

Republican problems of division are well known and the current struggles over raising the debt limit and renewing annual federal spending authority have highlighted the party’s lack of a single arbiter to resolve them. 

However, even with the presidency, Democrats have their problems -- even in today’s fiscal fight. While Democratic divisions in these debates are less pronounced than their adversaries’, they do exist. For example, many House Democrats have supported House Republican proposals to exempt selected government operations from the shutdown. 

A more overriding concern for Democrats is how to keep the presidency and its ability to smooth over their inherent cleavages.

In many ways, Obama is unique as a political figure. Is there someone who can replicate his magic -- his personal profile, his political acumen, his ability to raise enormous sums of money, and the most technologically sophisticated election apparatus America has seen? Gore and Kerry could not do so against Republicans in 2000 and 2004, and Hillary could not against Obama in 2008. 

Democrats find themselves as trapped with Obama, as Republicans do without the presidency. Second-term presidents lose their magic fast -- as Clinton and Bush II both demonstrated. Obama apparently is losing his as well, with little of his agenda enacted and little prospect of it being so. Yet having to maintain Obama’s winning presidential coalition as their best chance of retaining the presidency, Democrats have little choice but stick with him. 

Even so, Democrat divisions have been becoming more pronounced. Prior to the debt limit and shutdown, which strengthened Obama’s control over his Congressional allies, recent concerns have arisen over Obamacare and its implementation, continuing revelations over NSA surveillance, the recent Summers-Yellen debate over heading the Fed, and over his stance on Syria.

If Congressional Democrats should really break with Obama in appreciable numbers, his presidency would start to disintegrate as well and Democrat fissures become even more numerous and apparent. 

This shows the party seesaw's other half. While the benefit a party obtains from its president is very clear, the President's necessity of retaining at least an ability to neutralize Congress as a political counterweight is less obvious, but no less important. 

Opposition Congresses played havoc with Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II -- despite convincing reelection victories. Is there any doubt that Obama would fare similarly?

America's modern political system is a delicate balancing act for its two parties. Nationally, each needs a broad coalition to win. Each needs a president to hold the coalition together. And each needs sufficient Congressional support to sustain its president. All this is hard to assemble, difficult to maintain, and impossible to take for granted.

Both Republicans and Democrats are sitting precariously on their seesaws, trying to attain or hold political balance -- the real balance of power in U.S. politics. In doing this, they are seeking to do what the two parties have always done. This is what makes American politics so fascinating, and what will make the next three years particularly so.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.