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Obama’s Responsibility for Political Polarization

In his state of the union and again in his recent interview with Politico, President Obama expressed sorrow that he has not been able to end political animosities. As he put it in the interview, “a singular regret for me is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized, the language, the spirit has become meaner than when I came in.”

Obama blames different factors from the media to gerrymandering for our angry divisions. But Obama himself is in no small measure responsible for polarization. His reliance on executive action, most egregiously his order on immigration, is a primary cause. Unsupported by any express delegation from Congress, this extraordinary act is enormously controversial. It seeks to permit five million people who have come to this country illegally not only to stay but to work.

Legislation on divisive issues is much less likely to lead to polarization than executive fiat. The reasons are rooted in the nature of our political structure. Legislation requires ideological compromise, because the median members of Congress are closer to the center of the political spectrum than the President, who does not represent the median voter. Instead, he tends to reflect the median voter of his party, because he is selected largely by members of that party through the primary voters and super delegates. The Senate filibuster also moves legislation to the center.

Of course, Obama argues that he is acting because Congress is not. But gridlock is a key feature of our system that requires the compromise. And it is simply not the case that inaction by a President is as likely to lead to polarization as action, because it is actions that upset citizens most.

Tit for a tat is an iron rule of politics. Executive fiat by the President of one party will likely to lead to more such actions by the President of the opposite party when that party takes power. Indeed, Obama’s executive overreaching has helped no candidate more than Donald Trump. Many Republican voters have concluded that they need a man of action who will not feel constrained by legal niceties or previous norms of politics to fight for them. Following Obama’s example, Trump might lower tax rates by declining to collect certain taxes. Fight fire with conflagration.

Sadly, the enthusiasm for executive fiat is not limited to Obama and Trump. Even some scholars have caught the fever. Adrian Vermeule has approvingly imagined a world where there is no Congress, only an elected executive who rules essentially by decree. That would be a dreadful polity, increasing polarization and anger as well as leading to sharp and destabilizing shifts in policy. Even the excesses of parliamentary democracy—a system without our separation of powers– are limited by the need to retain marginal seats or assemble a coalition.  Rule by alternating men on horseback will stampede citizens to disorder and despair.

Reader Discussion

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on January 27, 2016 at 15:25:55 pm

I don't think Prof. Vermeule endorsed a presidentialist government, so much as he discussed its inevitability. Here is his closing comment:

"The commonplace objection to a United States without a Congress is not that it would be a bad United States, but that it would not be the one our Founders created. There is an obvious sense in which that is true, but there is also a somewhat less obvious sense in which it is false. The Constitution created a set of institutions exercising separated powers, but those institutions themselves created the modern powerful presidency and bureaucracy, in part because the institutions were too limited and wisely recognized their limitations. Critics who would restore the original Constitution should consider the possibility that if the presidentialist state did not exist, Congress would just create it anew, in an eternal recurrence of legislative abnegation."

The Framers created the Constitution without including a firm power of conscience to "just say no" to bad government actions. When we vote or when a jury of peers votes we use the secret ballot. Without a secret ballot the results are too easy to influence. The secret ballot is essential to conscience.

The Senate in particular was supposed to be the chamber that was to "just say no" to irrational or unconscionable government actions. The Framers did not given it a secret ballot, so its members must vote based on their next election, before voting their conscience. That make the Senate a populist institution, not an institution of conscience.

Without a body charged with and empowered to disapprove of bad government, our government is populist. Read Federalist 10 substituting "populism" for "democracy" and you should have most of the picture. (The Constitution was originally intended to prevent populism, but its design was not quite up to its ideal.)

That weakness of the Senate, I think, is what Vermeule is moving towards, even if unaware, when he mentions a congress that is "too limited" in its powers. It cannot vote on conscience first. It must vote on reelection first. In populist government, bad laws are made and bad government actions occur, always supported by the general population, always done with the best of intentions. Those bad laws and actions cause serious problems, so then a strong-man is needed to try to keep things from falling completely apart. That is how populism normally collapses into tyranny. That is why presidentialism is increasing.

Unless we change our form of government, unless we inject empowered conscience into it, Congress will eventually become symbolic, the president will have all government power, and the US will live with perpetual crisis.

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Scott Amorian
on January 27, 2016 at 15:40:08 pm

Do you really think having senators vote by "secret ballot" on legislation is going to solve the country's problems? I suspect it would make things even worse than they are now.

I think the Framers' assumption was that the Senate would be permanently filled by a permanent class of aristocratic gentlemen who would who would concerned primarily about the common good and their own reputations. This did not pan out. But then they were devising a new kind of system for the operation of which they had few, if any, models.

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djf
on January 27, 2016 at 16:53:20 pm

Scott:

I understand what you are getting at; however, using Vermeule as a point of departure is fraught with danger.

".. in part because the institutions were too limited and wisely recognized their limitations. Critics who would restore the original Constitution should consider the possibility that if the presidentialist state did not exist, Congress would just create it anew, in an eternal recurrence of legislative abnegation.”

Contained in Vermeule's argument is a false predicate (too limited) AND a failure to recognize that the intent of the Framers structure, "limited government" is the actual predicate for a "too limited" set of institutions.
Had the Federal Government (and increasingly State Governments) not expanded the breadth and depth of their interventions, i.e., an infinite elasticity to the Commerce Clause, an ever growing cornucopia of "newly divined" rights, etc. this "too limited" set of institutions would, indeed, have been properly and adequately sized.

Vermeule, like F.H. Buckley and his call for Parliamentary system, is prepared to allow the government to continue to intervene in all manner of private / commercial affairs and both fail to see the danger consequent to each system. Parliament is as Blackstone said (paraphrase here) accountable only to heaven. Vermeule would like to reinvigorate the antecedent dictatorship of the Crown with its prerogative powers of suspension, etc. and rule by fiat.
We have become so inured to the excesses of government that we are no longer able to recognize that the Framers structure was intended for a government of rather limited and expressly granted powers - not the all encompassing leviathan that it has become. Yes, virtue, especially in Public Office is required; perhaps, if we had that, we would not now be unable to remember what the "limited' grant of powers was designed / intended to superintend.

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gabe
on January 27, 2016 at 17:11:42 pm

Obama himself is in no small measure responsible for polarization. His reliance on executive action, most egregiously his order on immigration, is a primary cause.

Right. And the “birther” movement was also Obama’s fault. The fact that ten Republican Congressmen sponsored the Birther Bill was Obama’s fault. When Mitch McConnell declared that the Republican’s top priority is NOT rebuilding the economy, NOT defeating terrorists, NOT stopping Ebola – but rather, the top priority is to make Obama a one-term president – that was Obama’s fault. When the Republicans turned the filibuster into a tool of obstruction on an unprecedented scale, that was Obama's fault, too. And while we’re at it, have you noticed how much worse gravity has become during the current Administration…?

Let’s get real: Both parties now practice a “politics of personal destruction.” Liberals borked Bork. Gingrich brought down Speaker Wright, and then moved on to seek to impeach Clinton – all while having an affair of his own. So when Obama won, plenty of rank-n-file Republicans lost their minds and opted for a scorched earth policy. Laughably, they began rejecting policies that they have previously supported as soon as Obama would voice his own support. They shut down government rather than compromise. Hell, Obama can’t even get the Republicans in Congress to authorize use of force against ISIS. What does that tell you?

So, with Republicans dedicated to stonewalling, Obama was left to use whatever powers were in the Executive Branch. And, ok, perhaps a few others besides.

I get that McGinnis disapproves of Obama’s agenda and some of his methods; so do I. But polarization preceded Obama's arrival at the White House -- and I suspect it will outlast his stay there. Indeed, when Trump loses to Hillary, Trump backers will be apoplectic -- and Republican officials will be as eager to pander to their apocalyptic mindset as they were to pander to the birthers. At least we can take comfort in the fact that McGinnis won't lack for material: With a quick search-and-replace, I expect he'll be able to trot out this same essay, earnestly admonishing Hillary for creating the polarized political atmosphere.

And it is simply not the case that inaction by a President is as likely to lead to polarization as action, because it is actions that upset citizens most.

I agree; maintaining the status quo generally does not provoke as much objection as change. This was true during slavery. It was true during debates about whether to recognize the tort of sexual harassment. It was true during debates about same-sex marriage. And it’s true during debates about immigration and whether Black Lives Matter.

But it’s also a curious blindness of the laissez-faire minded to presume that the problems with the status quo are less significant than the problems with change.

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nobody.really
on January 27, 2016 at 18:31:01 pm

And who is evincing an "apocalyptic mindset" here. Oh, Poor Obama - "The Humanity of it, the humanity.

Can it also be mentioned that it was the Big 0 who opined that he "would bring a gun to a knife fight" and proceeded to do so.
Also, let us not forget that his own Party has roundly criticized the Big 0 for not listening to his own party and for being confrontational with the Democratic Leadership.

Nope, he has a style that engenders confrontation - not just partisanship!!!

Of course, one could readily point to the "tarring and feathering" that good ole W received on a non-stop basis; a day did not go by when there were not hyped up accounts of some supposed outrage committed by W - funny, when the Big 0 committed the same infractions (and worse) not a word was heard - heck, not a (media) creature was stirring.

give it a break - he is a nasty little bugger with an out-sized ego that does not permit any deviation from his position. He is reaping only what he (and the Democrat Party) has sown.

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gabe
on January 28, 2016 at 00:14:03 am

Nope, [Obama] has a style that engenders confrontation – not just partisanship!!!

Great, so we have two competing predictions. I predict that polarization will continue, regardless of which Democrat gets elected; McGinnis and gabe argue that polarization is merely a function of Obama's style, and will go away when he does.

Time will tell. May the best student of public policy win.

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nobody.really
on January 28, 2016 at 11:13:17 am

The original Constitution,as envisioned by many,but not all,of the Founders was that of a Constitutional Republic. A Republic in which there would be checks and balances within the Federal Government and from outside of the Federal Government with influences and certain powers delegated to the States and or to the People.
Gradually,over time,state power came to be more and more centralized and concentrated in Washington D.C. Gradually the idea of a Republic degenerated into the reality of a Democracy. Throughout history democracies have always bankrupted themselves and,eventually,further degenerated into dictatorships and tyranny. This process is ongoing throughout the centuries and is now happening to America.
With that said,it is obvious to any neutral observer that America is finished being a "free" country. In essence,at least in my lifetime,it never really was "free." Basically most of us are numbered sheep on a tax farm. Our masters,the "special interests" ensconced in the "Deep State" behind the scenes are the real power in America.
To discuss Republicans vs. Democrats,Left vs. Right, Obama vs. Bush,or one class or group vs. another is to fall into the trap of taking one's eyes off of the real power behind the throne and,instead,to talk about the politicians who are hand picked to be nothing but puppets in a giant kabuki theater. One only has to follow the money trail to see that most of our political "leaders" are bought and paid for by the real owners of America. That the real power in our nation are the special interest elites behind the scenes.

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libertarian jerry
on January 28, 2016 at 11:17:11 am

to the contrary, I DO NOT predict it will go away, nor have I ever done so. I simply point out that, contra nobody.really, Obamai s simply reaping what he and his Democrat friends have sown.

So long as the media continue to simultaneously present / obscure topics and subject matter that is either helpful to their Democrat masters / cohorts or unfavorable to their GOP *enemies*, polarization will remain a dominant factor on the American political scene.

Dems, of course, love this and welcome all media "info* that confirms their bias.
GOP'ers hate this, appear unable to effectively respond to it and consequently will seek to *lash out (or back?) at the Dems and their factotums; and will surely listen / support he that appears to speak out against this Dem hegemony.

Polarization is here to say - and thus The Trumpster may be said to be a direct outgrowth of the Big 0.

We are in for "interesting times."

BTW: I am too damn old to be a student of anything - other than good red wine!

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gabe
on January 28, 2016 at 11:22:30 am

Gabe--

In your view, is there even a grain of truth, in this passage from Nobody's post:

"Let’s get real: Both parties now practice a “politics of personal destruction.” Liberals borked Bork. Gingrich brought down Speaker Wright, and then moved on to seek to impeach Clinton – all while having an affair of his own. So when Obama won, plenty of rank-n-file Republicans lost their minds and opted for a scorched earth policy. Laughably, they began rejecting policies that they have previously supported as soon as Obama would voice his own support. They shut down government rather than compromise. Hell, Obama can’t even get the Republicans in Congress to authorize use of force against ISIS. What does that tell you?"

* * *

To my eye, the politics of obstruction have been worsening across most of my adult life.

Politics is only partially a rational exercise. It is rare when rationality detached from emotion structures policy. So to analyze our current situation clearly, we must be attuned to the anxieties, fears, and greivances of those with whom we are inclined to disagree. (I have learned much on this topic from the political scientist Jon Elster.) And it helps if we can acknowledge that on occasion we too are motivated by fears, anxieties, and deeply nurtured greivances. Absent this kind of awareness, and self-awareness, we can only engage with the concerns of our friends. Whatever else that is, that is not democratic deliberation.

What I find remarkable is that so many thoughtful, intelligent people on all sides of the contemporary public conversation say precisely the same things about the people with whom they disagree. Complaints in liberal circles nurse precisly the same greivances as those emanating from conservatives. The gist of the exchange above between Mcginnis and Nobody can be found in myraid similar exchanges in a wide array of media. Posts that amount to "my people are the good guys, we are right, you people are the bad guys, and are very, very wrong; and moreover, you dastardly people have done mean things against my people, you dastards, you!" are, you must admit, rather commonplace. As I read Mcginnis, that is what his argument amounts to.

What is distressing is that the deeply seated greivances are now so entrenched, so heartfelt, so richly perceived, that they occlude any deliberation at all. Deliberation requires, as a bare minimum, the existence of some basic sense of trust. Where is that to be found today?

Absent deliberation, we are left with government by fiat, coercion, force. If we give up on persuasion, all that remains is violence.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on January 28, 2016 at 11:52:37 am

On the whole, I agree with you. Obama did not create polarization, and it will not go away when he is gone. But I disagree with your characterization of McGinnis's and Gabe's position. I don't think that either of them said or even implied "...that polarization is merely a function of Obama’s style, and will go away when he does." McGInnis even says

Many Republican voters have concluded that they need a man of action who will not feel constrained by legal niceties or previous norms of politics to fight for them.

I take the point to be that Obama has made polarization worse, and I think that is at least a defensible position. "I won," "I get that for free," criticizing the Supreme Court in a State of the Union Address, "the police acted stupidly," pretending that his immigration executive order is a valid exercise of prosecutorial discretion, etc. are evidence of conduct that a more self aware and less self-obsessed president would see as exacerbating rather than lessening polarization.

I also agree with Gabe that many of the President's flaws derive from an unjustified opinion of his own specialness. I believe history will regard Obama for what he is: a charismatic doofus who is not nearly as smart as he thinks himself; whose lack of understanding of foreign policy at the very least contributed to destabilization and misery in the middle east (and yes, an assist goes to George W), whose economic policies have resulted in the child poverty rate going from 19.0 percent in 2008 to 21.1 percent in 2014, plummeting labor participation rates, stagnation and decline in real wages; whose view of government as a progressive fiefdom has resulted in embarrassing incompetence in the Secret Service, the EPA, the Veterans Administration, the ATF, the IRS, DHS, etc. He is a president whose narcissism and belief that the world is subject to his decrees has him caught with his foot in his mouth over "red lines," "the JV," and "ISIS is contained."

The list goes on...and on.......and on................and on, but the point is that Gabe's observation explains how Obama can have "one big regret," and that is continued polarization: Obama thinks he has been a success because, even though people get screwed by his policies, he thinks it okay because the people who get screwed are not the ones he really cares about. People who couldn't keep their doctor? Meh. Native Americans who had their water supply turned into mustard colored goop by the EPA? An inconvenience. People killed by guns trafficked at the instigation of the ATF? The eggs you break to make an omelet. People having to train their immigrant replacements? Speedbumps.

So, yes, you are correct. Polarization is here to stay. But McGinnis and Gabe are also more correct than you let on.

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z9z99
on January 28, 2016 at 12:03:24 pm

Kevin:

"In your view, is there even a grain of truth, in this passage from Nobody’s post:"

Absotively! Indeed, there is more than a simple grain of truth to it. My comment, curiously enough, was a response to what I (perhaps incorrectly) perceived as nobody's use of the typical "narrative" employed by the Left to excuse Obama's rather poor performance. The assertions made with those comments are clearly open to alternative explanations / expositions.

If one looks at my follow-on response (as well as a comment here: http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/01/27/stoner-vs-munger-citizen-or-consumer-how-do-you-choose-when-you-vote/) it should be evident that I do not solely ascribe the current polarization to Obama. I'll not repeat the arguments in detail here but will only say that the problem of polarization is more more systemic than one poorly performing occupant of the Oval Office. Perhaps, that is, (in part) what nobody.really was saying. Accepted; it was the examples provided which made it appear as if it was more "narrative" than simple exposition.

Thus, I think we are in agreement: Too much "conversation" can be attributed to fear, anxiety, yes; but too much can also be attributed to envy, jealousy and simple greed when it comes to electoral voting behavior. To my mind, this is also a contributing cause of "polarization." (I hint at this in my comments on Professor Stoner's piece).

BTW: Rather Disappointed in Greene's "Pursuit of Happiness...."
Arguments seem to be "time-biased" so as to favor his argument. Here is one of my post-it note comments that may sum it up: "Greene's discussion of the Lower South's (and Chesapeake, etc) social development appears to be an "apologia" in support of a thesis designed to refute a *strawman argument."

However, many good facts and some good observations.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on January 28, 2016 at 12:07:07 pm

Of course Obama is the source of polarization. Sure, polarization predated him. Sure, we expect it will endure beyond him. But he’s the source. Of course.

Gabe seems to be echoing our friend Dr. Frank-N-Furter: “I’ll remove the cause – but not the symptom!

(Discussing changes in the TV lineup In 1992, we’d re-phrase it as “I’ll remove the Coz [the Cosby Show] – but not The Simpsons!”)

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nobody.really
on January 28, 2016 at 12:27:26 pm

Nobody:

Why can it not be said that Obama is the cause of a "heightened" polarization in that he has escalated partisanship to a new level - polarization!

Recall not just his scathing / threatening comments (Justice Roberts comes to mind at the State of the Union) but his (and his party's - the passage of Obamacare, etc) actions. Many would conclude that it was HIS own behavior that brought forth the "supposed" fury that you mention - yet, as a I said, the media granted him a renewable Christmas present when not a single MSM creature was seen to stir when he "shamed" the Office with his careless rhetoric and criticism of his opposition nor did they complain when many of his own appointees claimed that Obama *refused* to listen to their advice or the advice of the professional military. No, it is his arrogance and (ill-founded) self assurance that has moved the needle toward the "red" end of the pressure scale - a scale whose needle was already threatening to cross the median.
And now, we must (presumably) deal with the Trumpster as passions have become somewhat more inflamed than prior to his ascendancy to the Crown.
Frankly, it is distressing; what one can only hope for is that we do not elect another buffoon who either knowingly (Obama) or unwittingly (Trumpster?) drives the needle deep into the red-zone.

I would not expect a celebratory touchdown dance, would you?

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gabe
on January 28, 2016 at 14:55:45 pm

Oops, forgot this:

In a nutshell, this is what / why of the Obama polarization thesis:

"We are the ONES we have been waiting for."

Seem to indicate a certain sense of "historical" deliverance, maybe? could it be that everyone other than the ONES are to be cast aside, to be relegated to the vast cadre of "bitter clingers"

such a self-conception can do nothing but exacerbate already frayed methods of discourse - and THE ONE proceeded to happily confront THE OTHERS.

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gabe
on January 28, 2016 at 16:12:53 pm

Recall not just his scathing / threatening comments (Justice Roberts comes to mind at the State of the Union)….

Remind me again: When was it that Obama shouted at Republican Congressmen “YOU LIE!” during the State of the Union address? Oh, wait – I think that was a Republican Congressman that yelled that at Obama.

Or when was it that Obama told senators on the floor of the senate to FUCK OFF? Oh wait, that was President-of-the-Senate Cheney.

But please, do quote to us the terrible-awful-no good-very bad thing Obama said, and how this was the source of polarization. Really, I’m all ears.

…the passage of Obamacare….

Oooo, yeah. How dare Obama propose and pass that legislation – after merely, you know, promising to do PRECISELY THAT throughout his entire campaign.

In contrast, let’s recall George W. Bush – a man who lost the popular vote and gained office only through winning a majority vote on the Supreme Court. Surely a man in his circumstances would be chastened and govern in a centrist fashion, representing the nature of the electorate, right?

Right?

… “shamed” the Office with his careless rhetoric….

I have no idea what this refers to. But I cannot wait for you to provide me with an example that, of course, has no parallel among Republican presidents. I’m already preparing to google Reagan and W quotes.

But go ahead: Pitch it nice and fast across the plate; I'm sure you're gonna unleash some heat that has been unprecedented in all of US history.

…and criticism of his opposition….

Seriously? Does the word “birther” mean nothing to you?

Obama *refused* to listen to their advice or the advice of the professional military….

Again, not sure what specifically this refers to. But I look forward to hearing more – and, in particular, how Obama’s reckless behavior compared with W’s lying us into Iraq War. You remember the Iraq War? Recall W cutting his own State Department out of planning for the occupation, with all the well-known results that ensued? Recall the 370,000 direct deaths, plus 210,000 civilian deaths, 7.6 million refugees and displaced persons, and a US price tag of $4.4 trillion? I do so look forward to learning about how Obama’s shameful behavior completely eclipsed that clusterfuck.

Please provide figures on the body count and financial cost; let's not let that naughty Obama off the hook!

“We are the ONES we have been waiting for.”

Seem to indicate a certain sense of “historical” deliverance, maybe? could it be that everyone other than the ONES are to be cast aside, to be relegated to the vast cadre of “bitter clingers”

such a self-conception can do nothing but exacerbate already frayed methods of discourse – and THE ONE proceeded to happily confront THE OTHERS.

We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For is the title of the 2006 book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. But who knows? Maybe it’s also the code name of a secret mission to send troops in black helicopters to inter all Republicans in tunnels underneath the Walmarts of Texas. I mean, just ‘cuz you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you….

Face it, Hardwick got it right: We all suffer from confirmation bias. You know Obama is Hitler + Satan because it confirms your world view to think so. I know the same about W. What else is new?
But since we know this about ourselves, the beginning of wisdom is to refrain from making such ludicrous claims without a theory and data to back them up.

Or to acknowledge that you’re just writing click-bait. Seriously, does McGinnis have any special interest in driving traffic to this site? Does he need to boost numbers or something?

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nobody.really
on January 28, 2016 at 17:01:09 pm

Nobody!!
C'mon - you have apparently gone over the top.

Black Helicopters, really!!
Birthers, really - and when have i ever made mention of any of these silly things.
No, you, as most Proggies do, feel compelled to "slander" opposing opinion by insinuation of a more vile nature, i.e., to attempt to associate a dialogue opponent with the "lunatic fringe". (BTW: It was the left who first introduced "birtherism" - recall the attacks upon that silly John McCain).

And a veiled threat at the SOTU address to a Justice of the Supreme Court is in fact shameful.

Must we rehash the 2000 election which went to the Supreme Court ONLY because the Democrat Judges on the Florida Supreme Court sought to disregard Florida State Law and IMPOSE their will / views on the nation. Gee, there is another side to the story.

Another of the left's lies: Bush Lied - people died.
You do know of course that Valerie Plame and her husband were wrong AND that the 500 tons of yellowcake ACTUALLY did turn up in Irag - along with numerous chemical weapons and discarded delivery systems. So it is not as clear as you wish to make it out, now is it?

And frankly, you once again disappoint with your transparent attempt to deflect the thrust of my comment regarding "WE are the ones...." You know full well it had to do with a mindset that Obama and his ilk possess and deploy which leaves any opponent, no matter how reasonable that opposition may be, looking like some wild eyed conspiracy theorist. I can only say that this must be the product of a rather FECUND imagination - what other type of imagination can it be that envisions / posits Black Helicopters and plots against the Republic from a simple statement about a man's narcissistic proclivities.
But then again, it is always Christmas for Obama - and you could appear to be one of the MSM's / Democrat Party elves providing cover for THE ONE.

Do not attribute to me the paranoia that may properly be attributed to the looney toons on the right AND the Left - I had always thought that you were not one of them.......

now take care
gabe

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gabe
on January 29, 2016 at 12:23:30 pm

What accounts for increased polarization? In his 2012 book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, Michael Grunwald traces the phenomenon to the House and Senate Republican strategy sessions shortly before Obama’s inauguration.

Traditionally, the majority party governs and members of the minority party trade votes for favors. But in 2008, after losing two election (Bush’s final midterm election, and Obama’s victory), most of the remaining Republicans were from hard-core conservative districts. These politicians had more to gain by burnishing their credentials as opponents than in actually delivering benefits for constituents. So following the 2008 election, they adopted a strategy of unified stonewalling. For all their remonstrations about the evils of unions, Republicans proved to be adept at adopting unions’ strategies. In his chapter on “The Party of No,” Grumwald reports:

“We’re not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years,” said [Eric] Cantor…. Cantor dripped with disdain for get-along Washington Republicans who happily supported Democratic bills as long as they extract a bit of pork for themselves. “We’re not rolling over,” he said. “We’re going to fight these guys….”

Cantor’s chief of staff, Rob Collins, had invited two pollsters to address the group, and no policy experts. That’s because he recognized that House Republicans were now communicators, not legislators. They didn’t have the numbers to stop Pelosi from steamrolling Obama’s agenda through the House. They needed better PR strategies, not better policies. “They’re just going to ram right over us anyway,” Collins explained. When House Republicans had the numbers, they had done the same thing. Now their battle was in the arena of public opinion.

To win that battle, Cantor believed, the whip team had to keep Republicans united, so Obama wouldn’t be able to brag about bipartisan support for his agenda. That would require picking fights carefully; focusing on stark conflicts that could define their party and the president…. Whips didn’t have much power to enforce unity anyway, especially not minority whips…. They could only build team spirit, so Republicans would voluntarily stick together….

The challenge would be developing a consistent message of No without looking like a reflexively anti-Obama Party of No…. [A]t first the targets would be Pelosi and “Washington Democrats” rather than Obama.

“The Young Guns” [Cantor’s team] weren’t interested in playing footsie with Democrats….
Pete Sessions … opened his presentation with … an existential question: “If the Purpose of the Majority is to Govern … What is Our Purpose?”

Not to govern, that was for sure. His next slide provided the answer: “The Purpose of the Minority is to Become the Majority.”

House Republicans were now an insurgency – and “entrepreneurial insurgency,’ … Boehner declared, -- and Sessions thought they could learn from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban. The key to success in this asymmetrical warfare, he argued, was to “change the mindset of the Conference to one of ‘offense,’ and to take the fight to the enemy….”

Two consecutive drubbings [2006 and 2008], while shrinking the Republican conference, had also dragged it even further right. Staunch conservatives from safe districts had survived, while the herd of moderates from competitive districts had been culled, including the entire House GOP delegation from New England. The Republican Study Committee, once a marginal outpost for hard-line conservatives, now included a solid majority of the conference…. Boehner had an occasional history of bipartisan behavior…, but that was “in a universe far, far away,” as Miller put it. Even if Boehner had wanted to reach out to Obama, he had to guard his right flank against Cantor, whose interest in his job was poorly concealed. So Boehner was already mocking the idea that spending [the “stimulus bill”] could ease the recession, berating Democrats to “start listening to the American people” as if Election Day had never happened.

After Republicans got whipped in 2006, party stalwarts like the House campaign chairman, Tom Cole, a rock-ribbed conservative from a rock-ribbed Oklahoma district, had argued for a less dogmatic message. Cole had been a political consultant before running for office – House Republicans had hoped he could be their Rahm [Emanuel] – and he had warned that the country was center-right, not right-wing. But after history repeated itself in 2008, Cole lost his post to the more dogmatically conservative Sessions.

The new leaders … had a new mantra: Our mistake was abandoning our principles…. They saw John McCain as a typical Republican In Name Only who had sought electoral salvation in ideological equivocation…. They even revised their opinions of George W. Bush…. And they viewed the homogeneity of their conference as an advantage. [I]t would be easier to unify a purer conservative team against Obama and Pelosi. They would have fewer “problem children,” as they privately described the conference’s moderates and iconoclasts.

[Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell] dubbed himself the Abominable No-Man.

McConnell reminded the Republican senators that there were still enough of them to block the Democratic agenda – as long as they all marched in lockstep….

Pelosi tried to persuade Boehner to work with Democrats on the stimulus, making an impassioned case that spending programs had higher Keynesian multipliers than tax cuts….

“Nancy said: We need to do something on jobs. And Boehner said: Why would we want to help you on that?” a senior Pelosi aide recalls. “You saw the beginning so of their strategy right there: They didn’t want their fingerprints on anything. And then if the economy didn’t turn, they’d win.”

Democrats weren’t interested in bipartisanship out of altruism; they wanted Republican fingerprints on the Recovery Act for similarly political reasons. As Tom Cole, now a deputy whip, wrote in his diary on January 7 [before Obama’s inauguration], “Dems are worried about a unified GOP opposition – not because they will not prevail but because they want joint responsibility.” In any case, House Republican leaders had already decided not to give it to them. They wanted Democrats solely responsible for the economy.

“It was apparent very early that this wasn’t going to be bipartisan,” Cole told me. “We wanted talking points: ‘the only thing bipartisan was the opposition.’”

[Meanwhile over in the Senate,] minority leader [McConnell] understood the power of partisanship as well as anyone in Washington. He knew that few Americans have the time or inclination to follow the nitty-gritty details of policy debates, so issues tend to filter down to the public as either “bipartisan,’ shorthand for a reasonable consensus approach, or “controversial,” shorthand for the usual political bickering. McConnell wasn’t sure he could stop Obama’s agenda, but he was determined to keep it controversial.

“He wanted everyone to hold the fort,” recalls former Republican senator George Voinovich of Ohio. “All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory…. If he was for it, … we had to be against it.”

McConnell recognized the Obama’s promises of bipartisanship gave his dwindling minority real leverage. Whenever Republicans decided not to cooperate, Obama would be the one breaking his promises. And since Democrats controlled Washington, Obama would be held responsible…. Americans would see partisan food fights and conclude that Obama have failed to produce change.

“We thought – correctly, I think – that the only way the American people would know a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan,’ McConnell explained later…. “When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out.”

Maybe Obama had rewritten the rules of electoral politics, but the rules of Washington politics still applied. The dream of hope and change was about to enter the world of cloture votes [filibusters] and motions to recommit. That was McConnell’s world….

[A week after Obama’s inauguration] Boehner opened his weekly conference meeting with an announcement: Obama would make his first visit to the Capital around noon, to meet exclusively with Republicans about his economic-recovery plan. “We’re looking forward to the President’s visit,” Boehner said. [But regarding the stimulus bill, Boehner said] “I hope everyone here will join me in voting no!”

Cantor’s whip staff had been planning a “walk-back” strategy in which they would start leaking that 50 Republicans might vote yes, then that they were down to 30 problem children, then that they might lose 20 or so. The idea was to convey momentum. “You want the members to feel like, Oh, the herd is moving. I’ve got to move with the herd,” explains Rob Collins, Cantor’s chief of staff at the time. That way, even if a dozen Republicans ultimately defected, it would look as if Obama failed to meet expectations.

But when he addressed the conference, Cantor adopted a different strategy. “We’re not going to lose any Republicans,” he declared. His staff was stunned.

“We’re like, Uhhhhh, we have to recalibrate,” Collins recalls….

Cantor’s aides asked if he was sure he wanted to go that far out on a limb. Zero was a low number. Centrists and big-spending appropriators from Obama-friendly districts would be sorely tempted to break ranks….

But Cantor said yes, he meant zero. He was afraid that if the Democrats managed to pick off two or three Republicans, they’d be able to slap a “bipartisan” label on the bill.

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs [said,] “You know, we still thought this [working with Republicans] was on the level,” Gibbs says. Obama political aide David Axelrod says … “It was stunning that we’d set this up and, before hearing from the President, they’d say they were going to oppose this…. Our feeling was, we were dealing with a potential disaster of epic proportions that demanded cooperation. If anything was a signal of what the next two years would be like, it was that.”

….Vice President Biden told me that during the transition, he was warned not to expect any bipartisan cooperation on major votes. “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything,’ ” he recalled. His informants said McConnell had demanded unified resistance. “The way it was characterized to me was, ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’ ” Biden said…. Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both confirmed they had conversations with Biden along those lines….

David Obey, then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, met with his GOP counterpart, Jerry Lewis, to explain what Democrats had in mind for the stimulus and ask what Republicans wanted to include. “Jerry’s response was, ‘I’m sorry, but leadership tells us we can’t play,’ ” Obey told me. “Exact quote: ‘We can’t play.’ What they said right from the get-go was, It doesn’t matter what the hell you do, we ain’t going to help you. We’re going to stand on the sidelines and bitch.”

In sum: Democrats have everything to gain from bipartisanship. It was the Republicans that, for sincere reasons – the party was now vastly more conservative than Republicans of old – and strategic reasons, had everything to gain from polarization. And since it takes two to tango, the Republicans prevailed.

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nobody.really
on January 29, 2016 at 13:18:36 pm

Yeah, well, as you say, policy differences ought not to be deemed obstructionism - and, yes, both of our wonderful political parties are guilty of this.
Yet, while Reagan, as an example, had to deal with the obstructionism of Tip(sy) O'Neill - still, he managed to pull it off and not further polarize the political discourse.
Wonder why that is, do you?

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gabe
on January 29, 2016 at 13:22:46 pm

BTW: Nobody:

I am less concerned with some of the specific "tit-for-tats" that we may both bring up.
I am looking at a more fundamental / ideological (psychobabble, perhaps) element.

Something on the order of this piece by James Caesar at the Weekly Standard.

I suspect that you will appreciate it.

http://www.weeklystandard.com/what-next-for-the-left/article/2000801

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gabe
on February 10, 2016 at 11:46:49 am

The Price of Republican Orthodoxy:

Both liberal and conservative orthodoxy have roots in the polarization of the electorate, a division in which each side holds the opposition in contempt.

If there is a godfather of current Republican intransigence, it is William Kristol, the conservative strategist and editor of The Weekly Standard. In 1993, Kristol wrote a memo to Republican congressional leaders….

In the memo, he flatly rejected all compromise strategies in negotiations with the Clinton administration…

During the Obama years, the Kristol strategy has become fully operational for Republicans dealing with administration proposals….

The Republican strategy was summed up by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who famously told National Journal in an Oct. 23, 2010, interview: ‘The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’

In many ways, the Republican strategy of huge resistance has backfired on the party itself.

As recently as 2001 to 2003, Gallup found that Republicans in Congress had favorability ratings in the high 40s to mid-50s, consistently better than their unfavorable ratings.

By 2015, the Polling Report, which tracks all public surveys, found that in five polls taken between August and the end of the year, the favorability rating of congressional Republicans had fallen to 14 percent, and the unfavorable ratings had risen to 79.4. Ratings of congressional Democrats at the end of 2015 were also negative, but significantly less so than those of Republicans: 27 percent favorable, 66.6 percent unfavorable.

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nobody.really
on February 25, 2016 at 00:44:50 am

obama is a good man.. & perfect for usa political run. thanks for your article..

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Bijoy khan
on February 25, 2016 at 12:52:16 pm
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on March 23, 2016 at 13:27:02 pm

In his book Why the Right Went Wrong, E.J. Dionne cites 2014 stats showing that 2/3 of Republicans call themselves conservative, including 1/3 very conservative; in contrast, less than 40 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal. Pew Research asked if people prefer their politicians to compromise to get things done, or to stick to their beliefs even at the expense of gridlock. Roughly 60 percent of Democrats prefer compromise, while only a third of Republicans have the same preference.

Moral: Republicans, not Democrats, prefer polarization.

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nobody.really
on May 16, 2016 at 06:16:37 am

Here's a link to that Pew Report showing:

- The growing gap between the two parties on the individual items making up their ideological consistency scale are mostly a consequence of Republicans taking more conservative positions.
- Consistent conservatives have much more unfavorable views of the Democratic Party than consistent liberals have of the Republican Party.
- Republicans, especially those who are consistent conservatives, see the other party as a threat to the nation’s well-being more than do Democrats.
- Republicans who view the other party very negatively are more likely to vote than Democrats.
- The ideological “silos” by place and friendship networks are much higher among conservatives than liberals. The same is true for race and ethnicity as well as religious faith.
- And importantly, consistent conservatives like their elected officials to “stick to their positions” rather than “make compromises”; consistent liberals overwhelmingly prefer politicians who make compromises.

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nobody.really
on October 04, 2016 at 11:44:28 am

From Jonathan Chait's Obama interview
Five Days That Shaped a Presidency:

"When I came into office, my working assumption was that because we were in crisis, and the crisis had begun on the Republicans’ watch, that there would be a window in which they would feel obliged to cooperate on a common effort to dig us out of this massive hole. Probably the moment in which I realized that the Republican leadership intended to take a different tack was actually as we were shaping the stimulus bill, and I vividly remember having prepared a basic proposal that had a variety of components. We had tax cuts; we had funding for the states so that teachers wouldn’t be laid off and firefighters and so forth; we had an infrastructure component. We felt, I think, that as an opening proposal, it was ambitious but needed and that we would begin negotiations with the Republicans and they would show us things that they thought also needed to happen. On the drive up to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican Caucus, John Boehner released a press statement saying that they were opposed to the stimulus. At that point we didn’t even actually have a stimulus bill drawn up, and we hadn’t meant to talk about it. And I think we realized at that point what proved to be the case in that first year and that second year was a calculation based on what turned out to be pretty smart politics but really bad for the country: If they cooperated with me, then that would validate our efforts. If they were able to maintain uniform opposition to whatever I proposed, that would send a signal to the public of gridlock, dysfunction, and that would help them win seats in the midterms. It was that second strategy that they pursued with great discipline. It established the dynamic for not just my presidency but for a much sharper party-line approach to managing both the House and the Senate that I think is going to have consequences for years to come."

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nobody.really
on September 19, 2017 at 06:39:09 am

E.J. Dionne Jr., Norm Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann trace the rise of hyper-partisanship to Newt Gingrich in the late 1970s:

Tribalism, which cast members of the opposing party not as worthy adversaries but as dangerous enemies, swept that respect away. The change began with Newt Gingrich, who came to Congress in 1979 determined to nationalize congressional elections and convince voters that Washington was so dreadful and corrupt that anything would be an improvement over the status quo. When he recruited candidates, he offered them a language of partisan militancy. “You’re fighting a war,” Gingrich characteristically told a group of college Republicans in 1978. “It is a war for power. … Don’t try to educate. That is not your job. What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority.”

This is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's account of a senior devil to his subordinate in The Screwtape Letters:

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence.... They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. [T]he best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is “the results of modern investigation”. Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

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nobody.really

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