There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.
--Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), on the failure of gun control legislation, May 2013. (1)
"Just because the president wanted to do it," according to Senator Toomey, was an additional obstacle to President Barack Obama winning Republican support in Congress. Immediately following the deadly 2012 Newtown school shooting, as well as in his State of the Union Address in February 2013, Obama called for a set of gun law reforms. Subsequently, Toomey took the lead with Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in negotiating a modest reform--strengthened background checks--tailored to garner bipartisan support. Even though this proposal had been developed in the Senate, not the White House, its passage nevertheless would have been viewed widely as a "win" for Obama. The initiative went down to defeat in the Senate, with 41 Republicans voting no, a sufficient number to kill it given the 60-vote threshold of support required. (2)
Toomey's comment accentuates an underappreciated challenge that presidents face in dealing with Congress: presidential support for proposals generates some adverse political incentives. The president's leadership repels as well as attracts (Lee 2008). Toomey's remark sparked some controversy because it frankly acknowledged a motive that politicians will rarely admit on the record: their political incentives to obstruct opposition party presidents. A president's difficulty is not merely that his party opposition will typically have policy-based objections to his agenda. The simple fact that a president publicly advocates a policy has political consequences. When presidents champion policy initiatives, they set a benchmark for evaluating the success or failure of their presidencies. When Congress fails to pass legislation sought by the president, the president looks weak and ineffectual--a political benefit to the opposition party in a two-party system. Meanwhile, presidents who gain congressional approval of their proposals will claim victory and be hailed for their effectiveness--a "win" that also has political consequences for both parties. Relatedly, presidents will also claim credit when they are able to point to support from across party lines for their "common sense solutions."
In light of these political realities, members of Congress have incentives not to give opposition party presidents either major policy victories or bipartisan assent. These incentives may be lessened when presidents are highly popular or when a public consensus exists, often following a crisis, on the need for government action. But congressional parties' political motivation to resist an opposition party president ought to be ranked among the president's typical leadership challenges. After all, how can a party wage an effective campaign against a president or his party after having voted in favor of his major legislative initiatives?
More broadly, we can distinguish between the political and policy calculations that members of Congress make in responding to presidential leadership. In a party polarized era, political scientists and other commentators typically focus on the ideological distance between the parties as the central challenge for lawmaking and presidential leadership of Congress (see, e.g., Binder 2003, Fiorina, with Abrams and Pope 2005; Jacobson 2000; McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006; Rohde 1991). But the importance of partisan motives should not be underestimated (Lee 2009). During the same period as the parties in Congress have progressively sorted out along ideological lines, with few conservatives in the Democratic Party and few liberals in the Republican Party, the parties also entered an era of ferocious competition for control of national institutions.
The level of party competition for majorities in Congress has varied widely over the modern era. With the exception of two Congresses, Democrats maintained both House and Senate majorities from 1933 until 1981. For nearly all of this half century, party competition for majority status was hampered by the simple fact that the Democrats were seen as Congress's "natural majority party." In the midst of this period, Mayhew (1974, 103) observed, "Alternation in party control has at least temporarily ceased, with the Democrats becoming something of a 'party of state' at the congressional level." Under these circumstances, Democrats tended to take their majorities for granted, and Republicans did not see an open path to the majority--perceptions that undercut incentives for partisan organization and coordination within both parties. The year 1980 marks an important shift. Ronald Reagan's sweeping national victory was the first time since the New Deal in which Republicans captured the presidency with a candidate from the conservative wing of the party. The 1980 elections were also the first time since 1954 that Republicans won a majority of seats in the Senate. Although Republicans did not win control of the House until 1994, elements within the House Republican Party began to organize a more forceful challenge to Democrats around this time, with Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) founding the Conservative Opportunity Society in 1983 with the explicit aim of winning a House Republican majority.
Since 1980, competition for party control of national institutions has been fierce and closely contested. During this period, control of the Senate shifted six times, with Democrats in the majority for nine Congresses and Republicans for eight. Control of the House of Representatives shifted three times, also with Democrats in the majority for nine Congresses and Republicans for eight. Between 1981 and 2017, Republicans held the presidency for 20 years and Democrats for 16 years. Since 1980 margins of party control in both chambers of Congress have been narrow--half the size, on average, of the margins between 1933 and 1980. Presidential elections have been close. There has not been an Electoral College landslide in which a presidential candidate won virtually all states across the country since 1984.
These circumstances of close, intense party competition for control of national institutions are surely significant for party politics in Congress. Competition stimulates party development (Schlesinger 1985, 1991). Under conditions where control of Congress or the presidency seemingly hangs in the balance, members have reason to weigh more heavily the partisan political consequences of their decisions. Even setting aside the effects of ideological polarization, members would likely pay a lot more attention to protecting their parties' political interests during a time when control of national institutions is seemingly up for grabs.
The goal of this article is to analyze the president's leadership predicament in light of purely partisan considerations, meaning members' interests in winning and holding control of national institutions. This focus is, of course, not to minimize the importance of ideological polarization in Congress, a real and profoundly significant phenomenon. Separate from the leadership difficulties created by ideological polarization, the problems that partisan incentives create for presidential leadership also deserve close consideration. The focus here will be on the past decade of presidential leadership, from 2001 to 2013. Considering the ferocity of party competition in recent decades, it is likely that partisan motives figure more prominently in contemporary politicians' decision making.
First, as a window into how partisan motives drive members' behavior, I will examine patterns in congressional votes to raise the debt limit, an unpleasant but inescapable duty that typically arises annually. Second, I survey congressional charges of administration misdoing that garnered significant media attention. These two arenas were selected for examination because they both stand at some remove from the ideological questions that divide conservatives from liberals. Adjustments to the debt limit have no effect on the scope or role of government, the extent of which is defined in law elsewhere. Similarly, as will be discussed below, the questions involved in congressional investigations of the executive branch are those of performance, especially fairness and honesty, values on which liberals and conservatives agree.
Despite the relative absence of ideological disputes in both arenas, the analysis that follows will show that partisan considerations profoundly structure members' positions and actions. Furthermore, these partisan considerations appear to have become more prominent in recent decades, following the emergence of intensified two-party competition for control of Congress. The partisan "teamsmanship" revealed in these areas has important consequences for presidential leadership, no matter the configuration of party control of national institutions. The article concludes with a broader consideration of how party politics--as distinct from ideological polarization--shapes the prospects and possibilities for presidential leadership.
Presidents and Party Politics
Scholars of the presidency have not historically given much attention to how party, per se, structures congressional incentives in responding to presidential leadership. It is well known, of course, that the party composition of Congress strongly affects the likelihood that presidents will be successful in dealing with Congress. Presidents are better able to pass their programs when their parties have solid margins of control in Congress (Bond and Fleisher 1992; Canes-Wrone 2001; Edwards 1990). Presidents also enjoy a freer hand in managing military operations when their party controls Congress (Howell and Pevehouse 2007; Kriner 2010). A president's personal qualities and skills do not appreciably alter these basic facts (Edwards...