Stop Blaming Dysfunction on "Both Sides"

For years, liberals have argued that polarization his little to do with the Democratic Party—which they see as largely centrist—and everything to do with a Republican Party, which has moved far to the right since the 1970s. Recent research from political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have measured polarization and ideological shifts in Congress, confirms that theory. According to NPR, they’ve found that the GOP is more conservative now than it’s been in a century:

The short version would be since the late 1970s starting with the 1976 election in the House the Republican caucus has steadily moved to the right ever since. It’s been a little more uneven in the Senate. The Senate caucuses have also moved to the right. Republicans are now furtherest to the right that they’ve been in 100 years.

Moreover, Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left, and that goes a long way toward explaining the gridlock of the last three years, during which time Republicans have refused to play ball on everything from economic recovery—they opposed the stimulus plan, even after signing on to George W. Bush’s plan for boosting the economy in 2008—to financial regulation and a health-care-reform bill built on conservative ideas.

Unfortunately, even after noting that ideological polarization is assymmetric, both NPR and Poole refuse to move away from a “pox on both houses” frame for the story:

"[T]here doesn’t seem to be much impetus on the part of the leadership of either political party to really do something serious about our budget crisis. I doubt very seriously we’ll see much improvement.

"People forget how utterly irresponsible our political leadership has been for the last 30 years…The current political class of the U.S. just isn’t in the same league as Truman and Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. You just don’t have that kind of leadership now, just when we need it.

This is a fashionable sentiment—you’ll hear it on cable news and in newspaper op-ed sections—but it has no basis in reality. For two years, President Barack Obama struggled to build a biparisan consensus around deficit reduction. The Affordable Care Act was built on conservative ideas, and pitched as a move toward fiscal sustainability. Independent projections bear that out—over the next decade, it’s projected to reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion, making it the largest deficit-reduction package since 1993, when Democrats under Bill Clinton passed a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts that began to bring the budget into balance.

In 2010, Republican opposition to tax hikes led Obama to extend the Bush tax cuts over liberals' objections, and last year, Obama—with the support of top Democrats—tried desperately to reach a “grand bargain” over deficit reduction with House Maority Leader John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership. But GOP opposition to tax increases—Boehner refused to trade Medicare cuts for tax increases on the wealthy—meant that these talks were bound to fail.

The Democratic Party isn’t perfect—or even particularly good—but it’s unfair to say that the United States has “irresponsible” political leadership, or that the political class is lacking as a whole. Over the last three years, Democrats have passed bills to achieve universal health coverage, reform the financial sector, bring carbon emissions under control, and save the economy from a second Great Depression. Deficits have receded to the background, but it remains true that only Democrats have been behind partisan deficit reduction—in 1993 and 2010.

If there’s a problem in American politics, it’s the Republican Party, whose theological devotion to to tax cuts and “small government” has destroyed our finances—both Reagan and George W. Bush were responsible for huge explosions of debt—and made bipartisan cooperation impossible. Our government is dysfunctional, but the pox isn’t on both houses, and the media’s quest to ignore that fact has only exacerbated the problem.