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Have Past Presidents Found a Winning Strategy in Bipartisanship?

March 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As budget negotiations progress, President Barack Obama continues to emphasize bipartisanship. To examine if this approach has helped with politics and policies in the past, Judy Woodruff talks with presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Marc Hetherington, an author and political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid a backdrop of budget negotiations, President Obama kept up his bipartisan outreach today.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president’s meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol was his first with them on their turf since January 2009, a week after his first inauguration.

In an interview that aired on ABC this morning, he sounded a note of optimism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now, what I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere where Democrats and Republicans can go ahead, get together, and try to get something done.

KWAME HOLMAN: But at the same time, the president said a sweeping long-term deficit deal could be impossible, given Republican opposition to higher taxes.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But, ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide. If their position is, we can’t do any revenue, or we can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid, if that’s the position, then we’re probably not going to be able to get a deal.

KWAME HOLMAN: After the president left, House Speaker John Boehner replied that it’s Mr. Obama who’s the obstacle to getting a deal.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: We have a spending problem. We have to attack the spending. And the president understands, yes, we have got some long-term spending that we need to deal with. But he’s going to hold hostage the fact that he wants to raise taxes on the American people again. That’s not going to get us very far.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Republicans, such as House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, on MSNBC today also questioned whether the meetings with lawmakers are just for show.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: Was the so-called charm offensive a temporary, you know, poll-driven political calculation, or was it a sincere conversion to try and bring people together?

KWAME HOLMAN: Other Republicans expressed more optimism about the talks and about the larger process of compromise.

REP. REID RIBBLE, R-Wis.: There are going to be places we are going to disagree, and he recognizes that and we recognize it. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find places where — as he would say, where there is overlap and try to do those things. And so it was encouraging. I was glad to have him come.

KWAME HOLMAN: For now, House Republicans are going ahead with Ryan’s budget proposal, unveiled yesterday, to balance the federal ledger by 2023, relying heavily on spending cuts and entitlement reforms.

Democrats in the Senate are pushing their own plan, a 50-50 mix of spending cuts and higher tax revenues. Neither plan is given much chance of being enacted into law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the president putting renewed emphasis on bipartisanship, we take a broad look at whether that has been a successful strategy in politics and policy.

Joining us are Michael Beschloss, our regular presidential historian and Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of two books on polarization and trust in U.S. politics.

Welcome to you both.

So we just heard some Republicans, Michael Beschloss, questioning whether the president is sincere in this. And we know separately that a senior official at the White House was telling a reporter that they thought — that he thought that this outreach was just a joke, because they didn’t expect it to produce any results.

So the first question I want to get out of the way with both of you, is has it made a difference historically whether presidents, political leaders were sincere in an effort to be bipartisan?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Oh, certainly. And they’re usually sincere, particularly eager to be conciliatory when there’s one or both houses of Congress in the hands of the other party, as is the case now.

But I think the last 25 years or so have been different from most of American history in the intensity of the combat between the two parties and also the aversion to compromise. And I think what you’re seeing is that the suspicion of a president of the opposite party — look what happened to Charlie Crist in Florida.

When he was with President Obama, they embraced. That just about killed his political career. He’s now a Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the intensity has gotten worse.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Marc Hetherington? Is that how you see it, that what we’re dealing with now is just a much more strongly felt version of what’s been here before?

MARC HETHERINGTON, Vanderbilt University: I think Michael is right, especially compared with 25, 30 years ago.

You think about the Reagan presidency and of course he was facing a House of Representatives that was strongly Democratic at that point, but there were a lot of moderates in the Democratic Party back in that day and age. And there are really no moderates on either side of the aisle for a president to reach out to, in this case a Democratic president reaching out to Republican moderates.

If there were, then this would probably be a more successful effort. It’s worth doing. I think it’s one of those things where we live in these — this media environment where all we hear is our side of things, so getting the two sides together is certainly a helpful process. But whether it is able to overcome the polarization that we have these days, that’s another story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marc Hetherington, a question people — I often hear from people is, is this a partisanship that’s born out of ideological differences, strongly held views that are just at opposite ends at the spectrum of belief, or is it something structural that’s due to the way the parties are organized?

MARC HETHERINGTON: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both.

Back in 1950s and ’60s, there was a lot of overlap in Washington. There were conservative Southern Democrats, Northern-Northeastern liberal Republicans. And these days, those things have changed. You can’t really find moderates and liberals in the Republican Party or conservatives and too many moderates in the Democratic Party.

So part of it is really ideological. And we all agree on the ends that we want. We want peace, we want prosperity. But the means that the parties have in mind about how to accomplish those ends, they’re quite a lot different. So bringing the parties together these days is very, very difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, what about this question of whether it’s born out of ideology, strongly different views, or is it the structure of the way our politics …

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don’t think it has much to do with ideology at all, because you look at this intense conflict, and most people who are in Congress now will say it’s worse than they have ever seen it.

You look at the kind of people who want to be the leaders of their party in Congress, it’s not a Gerald Ford of the old days, someone who could make deals with the other side and is friendly with people from the other party. It’s someone who can be the most intense partisan leader. That’s also different.

And you would think that this all came from there being issue differences like over the Bank of the United States with Andrew Jackson or the run-up to World War II, you know, stay out or go in, Franklin Roosevelt 1940. Nothing remotely close to that in terms of magnitude, yet the intensity of the conflict is perhaps greater than most times in history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet if you were to sit a partisan Republican and a partisan Democrat down here at this desk, they would say we have strongly — very, very different views, for example, on taxes, on the role of government.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I would say they certainly do. But you look at it in the historical context, does that rise to the intensity of the conflict over slavery, for instance, in 1860? I don’t think so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marc Hetherington, how do you see that?

MARC HETHERINGTON: Well, maybe so, but hopefully we have come a long way since the 1860s and slavery.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I hope we have.

MARC HETHERINGTON: I would hope so, too.

The fact of the matter is, there used to be a situation in Washington where the parties had different wings, a moderate wing and a liberal wing. So the party leaders who tended to come from the political middle, they had to bring the various parts of the caucuses together. Now the splits in the caucuses are, say, between — for the Republicans, between the conservative and the very conservative.

There’s very little centrist incentive to move the parties in that direction in Congress. And, you know, at this point, I think the Republicans realize, boy, if we make a grand bargain with the president, he’s going to get credit for it, it’s not going to be us. So the incentives in the process are really going to have to change for us to see very much of anything different happening.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And they fear that they might get primaried, which is a relatively recent verb, but this is something that’s very much on their minds in a way that wasn’t so much before.

The way you raise money is to exaggerate conflict. The way you get on not the NewsHour, but most TV is to sort of hype up your differences with the other side. So there are a lot of rewards for a member of Congress who wants to be combative and not — or — excuse me — to be combative, and a penalty if he wants to or she wants to compromise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask both of you to put this — to put this question in some context. Given where we are today, what’s the likelihood that the two sides this time are going to be able to come together and work something out?

Marc Hetherington?

MARC HETHERINGTON: Well, I’m — I’m a little bit pessimistic at this point. We know that the …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Only a little bit?

MARC HETHERINGTON: Actually, I’m more than a little bit pessimistic.

We know that the sides are drawn the way that they are. It used to be there was a time when there were less partisan people in the public at large. So Ronald Reagan could go out to the public and say, hey, look, I have this idea. And let’s put pressure on your members of Congress to come around to that. But that is not going to happen these days.

Both partisans in Washington and partisans in the electorate, they don’t like the other side. And that makes compromise very difficult to come by.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the prospects, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the last 12 years, we have had the first attack of the continental United States by someone else since the War of 1812, not much bipartisanship even after that catastrophe, the worst economic cataclysm in 2008 since the Great Depression, not too much bipartisanship after that either.

So, my view is that if they didn’t knock it off after events like this, it is rather bleak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe we need to have another whole discussion on whether it really matters that there’s bipartisanship or not, whether we’re better off if they don’t agree. Maybe they’re telling us something.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, Marc Hetherington, thank you.


MARC HETHERINGTON: Thanks for having us.