A Divisive Election Will Only Worsen Existing Partisan Rifts

Posted October 27, 2004 at 4:10pm

The presidential election has turned into a nail-biter, one that could be decided by the twists and turns of events breaking as late as the first two days of November. But if uncertainty reigns on the election, there is one sure thing: Whoever wins the presidency is going to face the toughest, most rancorous and most divisive governing climate in modern times. [IMGCAP(1)]

The campaign itself is helping to ensure that outcome. With the stakes so high, and with an electorate so evenly divided, the goal of each party has turned to getting its core voters to turn out — and the best way to do that is to convince them that if the other side wins, Armageddon soon will follow.

In West Virginia and Arkansas, the Republican Party sent out mailers last month suggesting that if Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wins, voters will have their Bibles confiscated. Democrats, for their part, regularly castigate the president as a liar, and rumors of a return to the draft swept college campuses through the fall.

Of course, the reminders of the 2000 election and its 36-day aftermath are palpable, as are allegations that minority votes are being suppressed, absentee-ballot fraud is rampant, voter intimidation is widespread and voting machines are even less reliable than they were four years ago.

Court battles have been raging for months in several battleground states over how to count registration applications and how to handle provisional votes — all in preparation for the legal challenges that will follow a close election and that will not this time be restricted to a single state. If the election is close and the result is contested, the ultimate losers will feel much more intensely and enduringly that the election was stolen from them.

These tensions and the climate of anger and mistrust are not new and were not caused solely by the Florida debacle four years ago. The partisan and ideological divisions in Washington have been building steadily over the past two decades.

Inside Congress, party relations began to deteriorate in the mid-1980s, after 30 consecutive years of a Democratic majority in the House, as minority Republicans grew increasingly restive and shrill about their perpetual second-class status, and as Democrats reacted with condescension and arrogance. In my mind, the turning point came in 1985, with the dispute over Indiana’s 8th district, Republican Rick McIntyre vs. Democrat Frank McCloskey — an eerie harbinger, in many ways, of the Florida brouhaha in 2000.

Indiana’s 8th was decided by a handful of votes — well within any statistical margin of error. An initial call of a McIntyre victory by a GOP election official was challenged, and the dispute came to Congress. There was no clear-cut answer; each disputed ballot, including some with names scrawled instead of boxes filled, or with checkmarks near the box but not in it, was studied repeatedly. After a long and highly contentious internal battle, the Democrat was seated on a party-line vote. Republicans to this day remember the events with clarity and fury. The Democrats, they muttered, didn’t need an extra seat, but stole one anyway. And things went sharply downhill from there.

The election of Bill Clinton and the subsequent Republican landslide in the 1994 midterm elections that led to Newt Gingrich of Georgia’s emergence as Speaker of the House accelerated the conflict. The early passage of the “Contract with America” convinced the Speaker and his Republican colleagues that he was virtually a surrogate president. But by 1997, after Clinton had successfully stymied the Republicans’ effort to seize power over the budget, and after both he and the Republicans in Congress won a new term in power, the party divisions had grown dramatically.

Democrats in Congress, thrust into unaccustomed minority status, chafed at their mistreatment. At the same time, Republican animus toward Clinton grew into an impeachment movement that had started with then-House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) saying it would never succeed without broad bipartisan support and ended with near total partisan division.

George W. Bush’s promise in 2000 to govern as a “uniter, not a divider” had broad public appeal, but it was not matched by his actual approach to governing. A brief moment of unity following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, degenerated by the following year into an even deeper and more bitter partisan chasm, with Democrats’ animus toward President Bush equaling or exceeding that which Republicans had felt toward Clinton during impeachment.

At the same time, the relations between majority and minority parties in Congress — which had taken 30 years under Democratic rule to deteriorate into open warfare — reached an even more poisonous level after just a handful of years under Republican majorities that took to unprecedented levels every technique Democrats had used to suppress minority input.

Some of the problems are systemic, such as Congressional redistricting, which has eliminated most competitive seats and thus removed most centrists and moderates from both parties. Others are personality-driven, as with former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), two party leaders who drove their partisan opponents batty. Still others are cultural, including a media climate that is all crossfire, all the time, leaving a system that rewards ideologues and spinners at the expense of voices in the center. A campaign climate has overtaken the governing climate, turning most issues into zero-sum games instead of coalition-building exercises.

To be sure, the government has continued to function, even with the rise in hostility. But the danger of breakdown is growing acute. Most Americans, after the 2000 election played out, accepted the results, wanting to unite behind a president and move on. That was true as well of most Democrats in Congress. This time, the proportion of voters who will refuse to accept the outcome if their side loses will be much higher. The situation in Congress will become worse.

The first wave of baby boomers starts to collect Social Security and Medicare benefits in less than three years, even as the fastest-growing age group in America — those over 85 — is drawing more resources for longer periods of time from those programs and from Medicaid. Unless entitlement growth is restrained soon — an impossibility without broad bipartisan cover — budget deficits will explode out of control.

Dealing with terrorists is becoming more complicated, not less, as Iraq deteriorates and drains American resources (and with no state like Afghanistan to hit after the next devastating attack on the homeland). Bitter partisan warfare on America’s role in the world will sap our ability to sustain our resolve in this area. Judicial nominations may fracture the Senate in the same way Indiana’s 8th fractured the House.

Artificial devices like blue-ribbon commissions can help, but only at the margins. Presidential leadership could begin to heal the bitterness and find a new center, though neither Bush nor Kerry has shown signs that he is willing or able to do so. The jolt of another terrorist attack would once again unite Americans, but even that cannot overcome the strictures of the permanent campaign and the increasing sway of rigid ideologues in Congress.

In the short run, unless and until a new generation of leaders emerges, our best hope for creating some kind of governing center rests with 15 to 20 institutional-minded centrists in the Senate, such as John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — people who can, if they have the fortitude, force Senate action to the middle and away from partisan destructiveness, and can challenge the House if it continues to exacerbate divisions by excluding Democrats from conference committees. But finding a path to constructive politics and policymaking will be very, very difficult.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.