As we begin the countdown toward an eventual vote on the jobs bill Barack Obama laid out Thursday night, the question is how much bipartisan support the president can really expect. Democrats and liberals, of course, complain that Republicans have been unusually uniform in their opposition to Obama’s major proposals. Conservatives sometimes rejoin that Democrats were just as firmly opposed to George W. Bush’s major plans. Centrists of the “both sides do it” school of political analysis are dedicated to the proposition that the partisan intensity of both parties is more or less equal.
I thought this might be a good time to look at some numbers and see. So I conducted a little experiment, in which I’ve settled on four signal legislative achievements of each president and studied the roll call votes in each house on those eight measures to see what the numbers tell us.
The four Bush bills I chose: the first tax cut; No Child Left Behind; the Iraq War vote; and the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill. The four Obama bills: the stimulus; the health-care vote; the Dodd-Frank financial reform; and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. Other people might have selected others, but these just seemed to me commonsense answers to the question, “What were each president’s top legislative accomplishments?” As a country we spent a heck of a lot of time on these eight issues, so my findings must tell us something. And here’s what they tell us: levels of partisanship are not even remotely close.
1. First Bush Tax Cut: Here, not much Democratic support—just three of 43 voting senators, and 13 of 210 voting House members; 7 and 6.2 percent, respectively (percentages in all cases reflect the percentage of actual voting members, because some people missed some votes).
2. No Child Left Behind (NCLB): Democrats rallied to Bush here, supporting him, interestingly, by larger margins than even the Republicans did. Forty-seven of 50 Senate Democrats and 197 of 210 House Democrats backed NCLB; 94 percent in both cases.
3. Iraq War Vote: More than half, 28 of 50, Democrats backed Bush here, while 82 of 208 House Democrats voted yes. That’s 58 and 39 percent.
4. The Medicare Bill: Democratic support wasn’t very high, but was higher than I’d remembered, with 11 of 48 senators backing the bill and 16 of 203 House members in support; 23 and 7.9 percent.
Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger:
5. The Stimulus: Three of 41 GOP senators backed it, and zero of 177 House members, for support levels of 7.3 and 0 percent.
6. Health Care: Zero of 39 senators and one of 177 House members; 0 and 0.6 percent.
7. Dodd-Frank: A little better! Three of 40 senators and three of 178 House members, equaling 7.5 and 1.7 percent.
8. DADT Repeal: Mon Dieu, a few votes! Eight of 39 senators and 15 of 179 House members, or 20.5 and 8.4 percent.
Here’s how it all adds up:
Average Democratic Senate support for Bush: 45.5 percent.
Average Democratic House support for Bush: 36.8 percent.
Average combined Democratic support for Bush: 41.1 percent.
Average Republican Senate support for Obama: 8.8 percent.
Average Republican House support for Obama: 2.7 percent.
Average combined Republican support for Obama: 5.75 percent.
Well now. You see, both sides do do it. It just so happens that one side opposes the major proposals of the president from the other party seven times more intensely than the other side does it.
As I said, I acknowledge that this isn’t scientific. The NCLB vote, I confess, skews things a little. But this was certainly one of Bush’s biggest legislative items, and he’s the one who chose to make it so. If Bush had managed to put a Social Security privatization bill before Congress, our numbers would be different. But not as different as you think. There actually was a kind of test vote on Social Security privatization in 2001 in the House, and 20 Democrats voted yea. So even if such a vote had taken place in 2005, we have reason to think Bush would have received a higher percentage of support on that—the single most important program to Democrats—than Obama got from the Republicans on anything.
And it’s not as if I’m hiding high-profile votes on which Republicans, in bursts of magnanimity, broke the above pattern. Remember the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, way back right after Obama was sworn in, before the stimulus poisoned all that goodwill? That won the backing of three Senate Republicans (yes, the same “stimulus three”—Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter), while another three House Republicans, out of 175, voted yea. And no, the recent debt-ceiling vote does not count. That was an “Obama initiative” in about the same way that Dunkirk was a Churchill initiative.
What does this history tell us? It tells us plainly that one side is usually against the other guy, but within bounds that are to be expected, while the other side is blind with rage against the other guy. I wish every American knew this. It would be a start for Democrats to tell them.
Note: I am on vacation until Monday, Sept 19. A new column will appear that day.