Party polarization and the ascendance of bipartisan posturing as a dominant strategy in presidential rhetoric.

Author:Rhodes, Jesse H.
 
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How do changes in the intensity of party conflict shape presidents' public presentations of self? Are presidents' public statements about parties and partisanship consistent with their political maneuvers behind the scenes? When do presidents have incentives to obfuscate about their party leadership efforts? Given the centrality of the presidency in the American political system, answering these questions is a pressing task for analysts concerned about the practice of American democracy. Unfortunately, in spite of considerable interest in the causes and consequences of today's partisan battles, we currently have little systematic evidence about how changes in partisan polarization over time affect the relationship between presidents' public rhetoric and their private actions in the partisan sphere (Cameron 2002; Cohen 2011).

This article seeks to set an agenda for studying the relationship between partisan polarization and presidents' rhetorical strategies, employing a case study of the 1977-2012 period--an era of rapidly intensifying partisan polarization--to develop and test a novel theory of presidential party rhetoric. Drawing on a new data set of every public presidential statement about one or both political parties in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (PPPUS) over the period 1977-2012--more than 21,000 statements in all--I investigate how presidential rhetoric about parties and partisanship has evolved during a period of intensifying partisan polarization. My research reveals a dramatic upsurge in bipartisan rhetoric--and a concomitant decline in partisan rhetoric--by both Democratic and Republican presidents over the past several decades, corresponding with the rise in partisan polarization among party activists and elected officials.

Then, using quantitative comparisons and historical process tracing to interpret these trends, I argue that presidents' increasing invocation of bipartisan themes in their public rhetoric about parties and partisanship over the 1977-2012 period reflects an effort to cope with partisan polarization and reach out to the millions of citizens disaffected by rancorous partisan conflict (Harbridge and Malhotra 2011; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002; Milkis, Rhodes, and Charnock 2012). While recent presidents have held very different political ideologies and have experienced very different governing opportunities, they have all presided in an era of intensifying partisan polarization. Faced with intractable conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the trajectory of domestic and foreign policy, recent presidents have increasingly sought to rise above the fray of partisan politics in order to present a more congenial image, appealing to disaffected citizens in order to increase their leverage with Congress, the mass media, and important interest groups.

However, I do not claim that recent presidents have genuinely sought a more consensual politics. To put matters simply, these presidents have become increasingly bipartisan in their public rhetoric since the late 1970s, but they have definitely not become either more ideologically moderate (Bailey 2007; Wood 2009) or more inclined to forgo subterranean party-building activities (Galvin 2010; Milkis and Rhodes 2007; Milkis, Rhodes, and Charnock 2012; Skinner 2009) during this time period. My analysis suggests that recent presidents have used bipartisan themes both to obscure their own ideological positions and to create a positive contrast with a highly partisan Congress. I refer to this rhetorical stance as "bipartisan posturing" in order to convey its strategic character.

In what follows I provide extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence of bipartisan posturing, and cast doubt on several alternative theories about the nature and development of presidential partisanship. As I suggest, in the contemporary period, the dramatic ascendance of the strategy of bipartisan posturing is worrisome. Presidents' increasing use of bipartisan posturing in response to intensifying partisan polarization has widened the gulf between presidential statements about parties and presidential actions in the partisan arena, eroding the link between speech and action so essential to democratic practice.

Future research should investigate how changes in partisan polarization affect the relationship between presidents' rhetoric and actions in the partisan arena during earlier periods in American political history such as the highly polarized "Gilded Age" of the late nineteenth century. Scholars could also examine the interaction of partisan context and presidential partisan rhetoric in cross-national comparative perspective or study this dynamic at the gubernatorial level. Such research is needed to advance our understanding of how partisan conflict shapes the prospects for truly democratic executive leadership.

Conceptualizing Rhetoric about Parties and Partisanship

Given the modest state of conceptualization of "presidential partisanship" (Galvin 2013, 46), some definitions are in order if we are to investigate patterns of presidential rhetoric about parties and partisanship. As defined in this article, partisan rhetoric is comprised of two kinds of statements: statements in which the president makes positive references to or about (members of) his own party and statements in which the president makes negative references to or about (members of) the opposition party (e.g., Morris 2001). I contrast this rhetorical stance with cross-partisanship, which occurs when the president makes negative references to or about his own party or in which the president makes positive references to or about the opposition (Jones 1994).

Presidential statements that refer to both political parties fall into one of two categories. I define as bipartisan both statements explicitly referring to the two political parties in which the president criticizes the partisan posturing of both parties, and statements mentioning both parties in which the president calls for--or praises--compromise, cooperation, or conciliation between them (Morris and Witting 2001).

Finally, I define as contrast statements all statements in which the president makes some kind of contrast between (members of) the parties that favors one party (or its members) over the other.

Partisan Polarization and Presidents' Rhetoric about Partisanship

My central theoretical argument is that presidents' rhetoric about the political parties is intimately related to the intensity of partisan polarization in the political system, with presidents adopting more consensual themes as partisan polarization increases. To unpack the logic of my argument, I draw primarily on theoretical and empirical findings from the study of American politics from the 1970s to the present. This logic may also hold at other moments in American political history, or in other executive contexts in the United States or abroad; however, validation--or disconfirmation--of my argument in these contexts awaits further data gathering and analysis.

My argument is based in three central premises: (1) that partisan polarization can vary in intensity over time, (2) that intensifying partisan polarization (when it occurs) is usually directed by party activists and elected officials, and (3) that partisan polarization is much more pronounced among activists and elected officials than among members of the mass public. There is little doubt that the intensity of partisan polarization has varied over the course of American political history (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006). During some periods, both parties are internally divided between liberal and conservative wings, muting partisan conflict; at other points, the parties become more internally homogeneous and externally differentiated, leading to intensified partisan polarization (Han and Brady 2007; Miller and Schofield 2003). Since the 1970s, the national political parties have become increasingly polarized, so that today they are more differentiated than at any point since the late nineteenth century (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006).

There is also considerable agreement that partisan polarization is spearheaded by ideological activists with extreme views on divisive policy issues. The issues that divide party activists vary over time; in the 1960s and 1970s, activists divided on explosive issues such as race, abortion, and the United States' role in world affairs (Adams 1997; Beinart 2008; Carmines and Stimson 1990). Activist polarization forces elected officials from both political parties to clarify their stances on these divisive issues, and leads to the replacement of older, more moderate elected officials with younger, more ideological representatives, exacerbating polarization among officeholders (Hetherington 2009). Importantly, the parties' increasing differentiation on the new issues reinforces conflict over existing issues, leading to "conflict extension" across a diverse array of issues (Layman, Carsey, and Horowitz 2006; Layman et al. 2010). In recent decades, the increasing differentiation of Democrats and Republicans on racial, religious, and foreign policy matters has fortified existing differences on economic and social welfare issues.

Research on partisan polarization also indicates that party activists and elected officials tend to polarize to a much greater degree than members of the mass public (Bafumi and Herron 2010; Fiorina and Levendusky 2006; Masket and Noel 2012). To be sure, as elected officials and party activists send increasingly clear signals about the relationship between abstract ideology, positions on policy issues, and partisan identity, voters tend to sort themselves into the political party that best represents their ideological and policy proclivities (Abramowitz and Saunders 2008; Bafumi and Shapiro 2009; Hetherington 2001; Levendusky 2009). However, research on public opinion from the 1970s to the present...

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