In Sotomayor Pick, Notre Dame Talk, Obama Unity Plan Echoes Ike-LBJ

The road to post-partisanship will be long, and could be a dead end, but give him points for trying.

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It's an oft-heard refrain in Washington: Bring back the age of bipartisan deal-making; the times when powerbrokers such as President Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson could reach across the aisle to find common ground on foreign policy and economic policy.

Indeed, virtually every candidate in modern times, ranging from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, has campaigned on a promise to reform Washington's bad habits—to reduce partisan frictions, and to find unity to solve America's biggest challenges.

Obama—more than most of his predecessors—made unity a major theme of his candidacy. In his February 2007 announcement, Obama declared that "in the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union."

Now that the 100-days media milestone has passed, and on the heels of his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and his Notre Dame commencement, it's a good time to assess Obama's prospects for forging consensus and delivering on his campaign promise to govern as a "post-partisan" president. Both his Sotomayor pick and Notre Dame address suggest that he's indeed making some gestures—though halting and incomplete—toward inclusion, unity, and bipartisanship.

Historically speaking, the mid-20th century can be seen as what journalist Ronald Brownstein named the "age of bargaining." In the 1950s, for instance, the Republican Party had a strong moderate wing and a strong conservative bloc, while the Democrats had both liberal leadership (Hubert Humphrey) and a powerful Southern wing. There was substantial ideological diversity within each party.

Thus, it was easier for the parties to unite on big issues such as anti-communism in the 1950s, civil rights in the mid-'60s, and entitlement reform of Social Security even in the early 1980s. LBJ and Ike typified the hard bargaining and consensus-building of the '50s. They forged a consensus on censuring Sen. Joe McCarthy, backed a bipartisan containment strategy overseas, and agreed to slow-walk civil rights reform.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the parties underwent a dramatic transformation. Conservatives captured the GOP, while white Southerners angry over civil rights and northern blue-collar workers upset by anti-war demonstrations and other signs of social instability abandoned the Democratic Party in droves—part of what Brownstein calls "a generation-long migration toward the Republican Party that left both parties more ideologically homogeneous and sharpened the differences between them."  

As political scientists and historians have pointed out, congressional redistricting in recent decades has also had a polarizing effect, putting many members of Congress into relatively safe and sharply partisan districts. Fundraising pressures have required elected officials to spend little time in Washington, providing fewer opportunities for them to forge relationships with their political antagonists. Numerous interest groups—from the anti-tax Club for Growth to the socially liberal People for the American Way —have made it politically perilous for Democrats and Republicans alike to defy their respective core constituencies on certain issues (see ex-Republican Arlen Specter and his vote in support of the stimulus package).

As Obama repeatedly voiced on the campaign trail, one of his most desired goals—and among his most audacious—was to overcome the partisan divisions of recent years and somehow revive the Ike-LBJ mode of bipartisan policy-making and consensus-building. While it's still early and the president's efforts have been inconsistent, his Notre Dame speech and his selection of Sotomayor suggest that he is indeed searching for common ground. 

In South Bend, Ind., he reached out to abortion-rights opponents, saying he wanted to reduce the number of abortions. His statement on Sotomayor framed her background as a law-and-order prosecutor, corporate litigator, and an up-by-the-bootstraps embodiment of the American Dream—emphasizing her conservative credentials. Plus, an African-American president appointing the nation's first Hispanic-American to the Supreme Court is also a stab at unity, albeit one with partisan benefits for the president as well.

Matthew Dallek teaches history and politics at the University of California Washington Center. He is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.