As Congress Bickers, Americans Remain Politically Moderate

Presidents have been trying, without success, to get Congress to pass sweeping national health-care reform since the administration of Harry Truman. So one might have expected some celebration, at least a moment of recognition for a difficult achievement, when the U.S. Senate voted on Christmas Eve to approve a bill that will extend health-care insurance to 30 million Americans. Instead, the public reaction was ho-hum. Most polls registered a divided or disinterested electorate, and some surveys have suggested considerable confusion over what was actually in the bill. A Washington Post–ABC poll the week before Christmas showed that less than half—44 percent—approved of President Obama's handling of health care, while even fewer—39 percent—thought the Republicans would do a better job. In effect, the American people seemed to be throwing up their hands and scorning the ability of the politicians to govern on such an important matter.

It's not hard to see why. Compromise is often painful, but the push to get a bill out of the Senate verged on the squalid. Senators joked bitterly about the "Cornhusker kickback," the generous concessions made to Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, to win his 60th and deciding vote. The atmosphere on the Senate floor was at times poisonous as the parties postured and squabbled. "This body prides itself on being the world's greatest deliberative body," said Sen. Arlen Specter, Democrat (formerly Republican) of Pennsylvania. "That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here the past few days." The low point may have come when Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, declared, "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote." At the time, there was some question whether the ailing Sen. Robert Byrd, 92, would live long enough to give the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority. "This statement goes too far," responded Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat. "We are becoming more coarse and divided here."

More divided, that's for sure. Congress has always had its cruder elements—during the late 1950s and early 1960s, senators from both parties patronized prostitutes at the Quorum Club at the Carroll Arms Hotel, just across the street from the Capitol. The bar was run by Bobby Baker, the Democratic secretary of the Senate. But lawmakers in that era more often reached across the aisle to vote together as well as to play together. The congressional culture of the 1950s and early 1960s—"where Democrats and Republicans generally treated each other with civility during working hours and many drank, played poker, and golfed together after hours—is long gone," writes Morris Fiorina, a scholar of political science at Stanford University. In his new book, Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics, Fiorina argues that while the political class—the pols and their partisans in interest groups and in the media—has grown increasingly contentious over social issues like abortion and immigration, the vast majority of voters are more moderate. They are turned off by the rigid, angry battles between the politicians of the right and the left, and their cheering sections and hangers-on in Washington.

Fierce partisanship is hardly new, unexpected, or, for that matter, unwelcome on Capitol Hill, and at earlier times in our history elected representatives have, in the heat of debate, attacked each other with their fists. But as the rancorous and seemingly endless health-care debate dragged on, Congress appeared ever-more polarized. Lawmakers fought bitterly over whether to fund abortions—a question that inspired passion, but was only marginally relevant to overall health-care reform—and they drew lines in the sand that seemed baffling to many Americans, at least those who aren't glued to the perpetual shouting matches on Fox or MSNBC. Left-wing supporters of the much-contested "public option" deemed it essential to reform, while those on the right cried "Socialism!" Actually, the Congressional Budget Office found that the public option would make little difference to the number of people covered or to the cost of premiums. Its importance was far more symbolic than real.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is one of the last two moderate Republicans in the Northeast, once a thriving tribe (the other is the state's junior senator, Susan Collins). Snowe was the one Republican who might have voted for the health-reform bill, though in the end even she did not. But in a speech on the Senate floor in early December, Snowe pointed out a disturbing historical fact: health-care reform is the only piece of major social-welfare legislation ever to pass the Senate on a straight party-line vote. When Social Security was enacted during the New Deal, significant majorities of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted for the measure, even though Democrats controlled Congress. Likewise for the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. Significant numbers of Republicans (41 percent in the Senate, 50 percent in the House) voted for Medicare in 1965. "Policies that will affect more than 300 million people simply should not be decided by partisan, one-vote-margin strategies," said Snowe.

Professor Fiorina notes that the political parties are becoming more extreme. The percentage of Republican delegates to nominating conventions who identify themselves as "very conservative" has risen from about 12 percent to more than 30 percent since 1972, and the percentage of "very liberal" Democratic delegates has grown from about 8 percent to nearly 20 percent. By contrast, surveys of the general public show little change in "very conservative" and "very liberal" percentages. Voters tend to be quirkier in their opinions—they don't go down a checklist on "wedge issues," but rather show inconsistency and ambivalence. A self-described conservative who hates big government may nonetheless want government to cut the bonuses of Wall Street financiers.

Fiorina's somewhat sweeping conclusions in Disconnect are questioned by other political experts like Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, who argues that the voters are almost as partisan as their representatives—that the red state–blue state divide is real and growing deeper. But differences between the scholars seem to be questions of degree, and all seem to share the view that Capitol Hill has become disturbingly uncivil and polarized. The politicians are egged on by ever-more powerful interest groups and the attack-mode spirit of radio talk shows and cable TV. President Obama has tried, fitfully and without not-able effect, to inspire lawmakers to rise above petty factionalism. If he wants to get anything more accomplished over the course of his presidency, he will have to try harder. There is no other obvious cure to the problem of political polarization. Fiorina offers none. He suggests only that in time, we will become so weary of our punitive politics that the system will, out of necessity, "outgrow" or "outlive" its current fractiousness. Which is a polite way of saying that things are probably going to get worse before they get better.