Jonathan Chait is smart and acerbic and he gets a lot of things right in his extensive New Republic story on the relationship between Congressional Democrats and President Obama. Chait offers three principal reasons to explain why unified control of Congress and the White House usually isn't as seamless under Democrats as under Republicans. Each of his arguments tells part of the story. He's right that there is a tradition of Congressional independence among Democrats; that the party is divided, not unified, by the influence of business; and that Democratic Members are less likely than Republicans to see their fate as closely tied to the president (even though history has shown the clear fallacy of that point of view). But Chait's story omits, as the Left usually does, two other critical elements of the relationship between Congressional Democrats and Obama.
First, Democrats are far more united under Obama than they have been in the past; as we noted earlier this year, Congressional Democrats are voting together at a rate greatly exceeding their unity as recently as under Bill Clinton, much less under Jimmy Carter. It's easy to forget that no Senate Democrats and only seven House Democrats voted against the final passage of Obama's stimulus plan; by contrast, six Senate and 41 House Democrats voted against final passage of Clinton's economic plan in 1993. Yes, Congressional Democrats are now requiring changes in the Obama budget, but it's also easy to forget that Republican defections (albeit from a smaller number of members) forced Bush to trim his tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003.
While party unity was a defining characteristic of the GOP majority when it held unified control earlier this decade, it's a mistake to recall Republicans as simply Xeroxing Bush's proposals. More important, Chait ignores the single largest reason why Democrats don't display as much party loyalty as Republicans: the Democratic coalition is inherently more diverse and less homogenous than the Republican coalition. That's true in the Democratic voting coalition: as I pointed out in a post last week, liberals constitute only about one-third of self-identified Democrats, while conservatives comprise about two-thirds of self-identified Republicans. (Just under two-fifths of Obama voters described themselves as liberals, while about three-fifths of John McCain voters called themselves conservatives.) The same pattern holds in Congress. One reason Congressional Republicans held together so well under Bush is that so many of them were elected by constituencies that also voted for him; there was an unbroken line of allegiance from presidential to Congressional results.
After the 2004 election, 44 of the 55 Senate Republicans (80%) came from states that voted both times for Bush; likewise all but 18 of the 232 House Republicans at that point came from districts that voted for Bush in 2004. By contrast, the best current estimate is that 49 of the 257 House Democrats come from districts that voted for McCain in 2008, and only 33 of the 58 Democratic Senators (57%) come from states that voted Democratic in each of the past two elections. Thirteen Democratic Senators were elected in states that voted Republican in each of the past two presidential elections, and another 12 came from states that voted Republican in 2004 but not 2008. In all, then, fully 25 Democratic Senators come from states that have voted Republican in at least one of the past two elections.