Wednesday, April 6, 2005

In 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater offered a “choice, not an echo” in his race against Lyndon Johnson, arguing that the two political parties had morphed into indistinguishable mush. Four decades later, the late conservative icon would marvel at how closely Republicans and Democrats embraced his admonition — at least in certain respects.

Current jousting over judicial confirmations, Social Security reform and the federal budget separate Republicans and Democrats like raindrops on an oily driveway. But while Republicans at least try to posit an agenda, Democrats offer naysaying, based on who offers a proposal.

But how does the “drip, drip, drip” of partisan wrangling and the cult of permanent resistance affect voters? Does it lower evaluations of congressional job performance or impose a chilling effect on compromise? Some recent evidence suggests that it does both.

Partisan jousting by lawmakers in Washington clearly “primes” voter evaluation of Congress, argues University of Missouri-St.Louis political scientist David Kimball in the current edition of Legislative Studies Quarterly. Mr. Kimball suggests partisanship colors evaluations so much that we should reconsider the usefulness of standard congressional job-approval survey questions. These party differences are often masked in polls. Mr. Kimball argues that partisan elites “prime”voters through their rhetoric, which in turn shapes evaluations of Congress.

Mr. Kimball then raises another interesting point concerning how partisan rhetoric affects voters: “If evaluations of Congress are susceptible to partisan priming, then it is possible that other political attitudes are subject to partisan priming.”

Voter evaluations of the recently passed Medicare prescription-drug law support Mr. Kimball’s point. While overall evaluations of the legislation are positive, these numbers mask huge partisan differences. Republicans overwhelmingly support the new law, while Democrats are sharply more negative, significantly reducing the overall level of support for the legislation. For example, in a recent Dutko Worldwide national survey of 800 registered voters in January of 2005, the approve/disapprove numbers on the Medicare bill were 61 percent to 32 percent. However, partisan differences underlying these numbers were stark, 82 percent of Republicans approved the legislation, while only 46 percent of the Democrats did.

Compare these numbers to a 1999 Gallup Poll asking if President Clinton should sign a prescription-drug bill, where 96 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans responded “yes.” Question wording and sample size account for some of the differences, but Republican elites in Washington were also not engaged in a major political campaign denigrating the legislation — they just wanted the issue to go away. But when Democratic elites in Washington advocated a prescription-drug bill six years ago, the party’s rank in file were almost unanimous in their support. Priming from party leaders in Congress — particularly the brutal assaults against the bill by Democrats — probably played a big role in the rank in file’s change of heart.

Social Security is no different. Most agree change is needed to continue solvency (88 percent agree, including 86 percent of the Democrats and 93 percent of Republicans). But when policy proposals are linked to President Bush, stark partisan differences emerge — 77 percent of Republicans support reforms using personal accounts, while only 42 percent of Democrats do.

Interestingly, on other important issues where the partisan debate has not reached an apex, like energy policy or immigration reform, polling data demonstrates more attenuated differences between Republicans and Democrats.

These numbers suggest partisan rhetoric has a major impact on rank in file and that differing policy views among citizens are, in part, driven more by rhetorical heat than deep disagreements about problems and solutions. Voters are both drawn to and repelled by a good political fight — an enduring political paradox. The late Mr. Goldwater would be pleased with the “choices, not echoes” offered by today’s political parties, but he would expect more from the Democrats as a true loyal opposition. He believed there was a time to sheath rhetorical swords and encourage voters to find common ground. But political parties also have the responsibility to generate policy illumination, not just political sparks. The question is: Can the Democrats stop the permanent campaign long enough to execute that important pivot and produce some light as well?

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