Political Partisanship Deeply Rooted, Says Professor

Story posted February 10, 2009

In spite of promise of a new era of bi-partisan politics in Washington, President Obama became mired in partisan politicking within weeks of taking office. According to one political analyst, the specter of partisanship that became so extreme during the presidency of George W. Bush may not be so easily banished.

Richard Skinner
Richard Skinner.

"If Obama thinks it will be easy to overcome these divisions, he'll end up being disappointed," notes Bowdoin Visiting Professor of Government Richard Skinner. "Partisanship is an underlying part of our political system now and a lot of Republicans just don't like the direction he's taking the country."

Skinner traces the rise of the partisan presidency in an article appearing in the current issue of Political Science Quarterly. The office careened away from the "across the aisle" approach that marked such modern presidencies as Franklin Roosevelt, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. Reagan boldly seized party leadership, appointed ideological loyalists and extended Republican reach deeply into the executive branch.

In the 30 years that have followed, says Skinner, presidents from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush have actively sought to put a stronger partisan imprint on the office.

"We need to move beyond outdated notions of presidents above party politics," he writes, "and instead understand presidents who are passionately engaged in them and seek to use their parties as tools of governance."

In the article, "George W. Bush and the Partisan Presidency," Skinner traces the rise of partisanship through nearly three decades of change in election processes, congressional relations, administrative strategy, and media relations. Correspondingly, the American opinion has become more polarized, with the elections of 2000 and 2004, respectively, showing 87 percent and 90 percent of voters casting ballots along party lines.

Skinner cites George W. Bush as perhaps the most extreme expression of the partisan president, pursuing conservative policies that drew scant support from public opinion - even, ultimately, from within his own party. "George W. Bush has brought this partisanship to a new extreme-perhaps to the point when practice becomes pathology," writes Skinner.

There are some advantages to the new partisan presidency. Voter turnout and involvement in party politics has reached a new high. Additionally, the blurriness that has marked party lines since the 19th century, is now giving way to more distinctive ideological platforms—a change long championed by reformers.

Skinner is author of the book More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

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