Bill Clinton gave a fascinating speech last night about the rich tradition of leadership in the White House that reached across party lines rather embracing extremism. Polarization is something we identify as a central cause of macroeconomic dysfunction, and it can be found at the turning point of decline in historical great powers, so Clinton’s message is worth repeating:
After all, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and built the interstate highway system. And as governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I am grateful to President George W. Bush for PEPFAR, which is saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries and to both Presidents Bush for the work we’ve done together … I work with Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are focused on solving problems and seizing opportunities, not fighting each other.
Unfortunately, as the former President surely was hinting, that kind of bipartisan leadership has been missing from DC during the last four years. See the Politico story today here, for example. Or see the excerpts from Bob Woodward’s Price of Politics here about Obama’s partisan style: “It was increasingly clear that no one was running Washington. That was trouble for everyone, but especially for Obama,” Woodward writes. Partisan polarization is a huge danger if it is allowed to continue because it means our nation will simply not be able to address the fiscal imbalance of trillion dollar baseline deficits.
A few weeks ago, I looked into the polarizing nature of President Obama’s legislative achievements, my own effort to step back from the trees to see the forest. The media often cast President Bush as “extreme” but the legislative record shows Obama to be off the charts by comparison. Here’s an excerpt & chart from my op-ed in the Washington Examiner:
The total number of opposition votes Obama attracted for all five signature laws was just 14 in the Senate and 21 in the House. The comparable numbers for Bush are 145 votes in the Senate and 468 in the House. …The Obama White House never sought centrist policy or votes in its signature legislation, not even from centrist Democrats. Consider the 34 Republican representatives who voted against Bush’s NCLB because they thought it too liberal, in contrast with the 33 House Democrats who voted against Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because they found it too liberal.
Knee-deep in reading about how other Great Powers have declined, it is clear the extent of polarization could get a lot worse. In the Ottoman empire, the Janissaries morphed from the Sultan’s fearsome elite infantry unit into a self-serving special interest that resisted new technology. They deposed Sultan Selim III in 1807 for trying to modernize the military. The next Sultan, Mahmud II, was careful to slowly consolidate his power and then initiated a fight with his own Janissary Corps, burning 4000 of them to death in their barracks. In Ming China, for example, the eunuchs struggled bitterly against the Confucian Mandarinate for centuries, but the Mandarins ultimately won and not only docked Zheng He’s great treasure fleet after 1436, but also burned records of his travels, and made sure the emperor banned ocean travel. Short-sighted politics to say the least.