The Paradox That Fuels Our Divided Politics

American politics is caught in a perverse paradox. The bases of both parties would like nothing more than to destroy the other party. But it is precisely this animus that prevents them from accomplishing their goal. That’s because the best strategy for partisans to wreak havoc in the other party is to pursue bipartisanship when they’re in power.

When Barack Obama came into office with majorities in Congress, he opted to push his agenda on a party-line basis, starting with the 2009 stimulus package that passed the Senate with only three Republican votes and the 2010 Affordable Care Act that got no Republican support in the Senate.

Obama’s unilateral approach allowed Republicans to stay unified in opposition and ultimately to take back the House in 2010, leaving Obama to spend the rest of his presidency governing with his “pen and phone” without more major legislation.

The Trump presidency offers a similar lesson. If Trump had opened with an infrastructure plan—as some of his advisers initially wanted—he could have split the Democrats, won over some moderates in that party and made it more difficult for the Democrats to sell their “resistance” messaging for Trump’s entire term.

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