Let’s Talk About What Makes Governing Harder

By now almost everyone has weighed in on the article in the NYT by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman about Hillary Clinton’s strategy for winning the 2016 presidential election. Chuck Todd and his friends at First Read adopted the conventional wisdom of the Washington D.C. pundit class with their response titled: This is the Way to Win Elections (But it Makes Governing Harder).

Campaigns see an America more polarized than ever, and winning is all about coming out ahead in this polarized world. But it makes governing harder than it already was. Bottom line: Campaigns don’t engage in persuasion anymore. They simply look for unmotivated like-minded potential voters and find an issue to motivate them. And if someone wins office by not having to persuade a voter who actually swings between the two parties, there isn’t any motivation for said elected official to compromise.

Of course Ron Fournier joined that chorus immediately with his entry titled: The Right Way and Wrong Way to Win the Presidency.

My problem with this approach is that it works only until Election Day, when a polarizing, opportunistic candidate assumes the presidency with no standing to convert campaign promises into results.

Naturally, David Brooks agrees.

…this base mobilization strategy is a legislative disaster. If the next president hopes to pass any actual laws, he or she will have to create a bipartisan governing majority. That means building a center-out coalition, winning 60 reliable supporters in the Senate and some sort of majority in the House. If Clinton runs on an orthodox left-leaning, paint-by-numbers strategy, she’ll never be able to do this. She’ll live in the White House again, but she won’t be able to do much once she lives there.

This is a classic case of the media’s addiction to “both sides do it” as a way of explaining gridlock in Washington. It is a lie they tell themselves (and us) about what is going on in order to claim a false sense of balance in reporting to appease conservatives who constantly decry the “liberal media.” The fact that it is a lie matters less than their desire to prove that claim wrong.

So let’s take a moment to deal with the facts. As I pointed out before, the positions Hillary Clinton has articulated enjoy broad support among voters – including independents. In reacting to the same article, Steve M. dug up some of the actual numbers.

Americans support gay marriage by a 60%-37% margin, and 58% want the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage nationwide — and Hillary’s is a “liberal position”? There’s 72% support for legalization of undocumented immigrants — and her position on immigration is too left-wing? And when I Google “bipartisan support for criminal justice reform,” one of the first hits is a post with precisely that title from, um, FreedomWorks — but Clinton’s out of the mainstream? Oh, please.

So if Clinton is talking about issues that enjoy 60-70% support from Americans, where is the polarization coming from? What stops elected officials from compromising to address their concerns? Do you suppose it has anything to do with a Republican Speaker of the House who finds it hard to even utter the word “compromise?”

Let’s take a close look at just one example to make the point: immigration reform. Typically Democrats have prioritized a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in this country while Republicans have prioritized border security. Not that long ago, a bi-partisan group of Senators got together to compromise by drafting a bill that included both priorities. With Democrats still in control of the Senate, it passed there. But Speaker Boehner refused to bring it up for a vote in the House. Part of Hillary Clinton’s agenda in her campaign is to support the Senate’s bi-partisan approach to immigration reform.

So let’s be clear about what makes governing harder: the problem is that we have one political party that is catering to an ever-decreasing group of voters that completely rejects any form of compromise to their agenda. When/if folks like Chuck Todd, Ron Fournier and David Brooks figure that one out – they will finally be able to start telling the American people the truth.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.