As President Obama and Mitt Romney fight for the White House, the nation’s divisions loom large

AP PHOTOS (LEFT); GETTY IMAGES
AP PHOTOS (LEFT); GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON — To look at the presidential ballot is to marvel at how far the country seems to have come in recent decades: an incumbent African-American is seeking reelection against a Mormon. It seems the definition of a nation casting aside historic divisions.

Then there is the flip side. Divisions still define us, and the 2012 campaign seems, if anything, to have deepened them.

No matter whether President Obama or Mitt Romney claims victory on Tuesday, the winner will govern a nation that scholars say is remarkably split on political, economic, generational, racial, and social grounds. The next president also is likely to face a divided Congress, which in the last year seemed to prefer gridlock no matter the stakes.

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Once the ballots are counted and the name of the next president is no longer a mystery, the deeper questions are bound to remain: Why is the country so polarized after decades of social progress? And, if the election is as close as projected, how can the man who occupies the White House for the next four years bridge the partisan crevasse and get critical public business done?.

“In the eyes of the world, we are facing a governance crisis,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who has spent the last seven years studying the nation’s polarization. “This is a game for very high stakes. The future of the country is on the table.”

Both Obama and Romney, perhaps reflecting awareness of the hard path ahead for Tuesday’s victor, have amended their tone recently, suggesting they are prepared to pursue a more conciliatory path if elected.

After running as “severely conservative’’ during the primary, Romney in the closing days of the general election campaign has pledged to work in bipartisan fashion in Washington and cut deals with Democrats on big issues. He cites his work in the Massachusetts State House, where he dealt with a Democratic Legislature.

“That kind of bipartisanship finally has to be brought to Washington, and I will,” Romney said Saturday at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.

And Obama recently predicted that the threat of automatic spending cuts set to take effect at the end of the year will spur greater cooperation and a deal on big fiscal questions next year.

“We’re going to be in a position where I believe in the first six months we are going to solve that big piece of business,’’ Obama told the Des Moines Register late last month.

Looming ‘fiscal cliff’

But a look ahead at the choices facing the next president suggests daunting prospects.

The automatic spending cuts are part of a looming “fiscal cliff” that includes the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and other tax breaks for individuals and businesses. If the lame-duck Congress votes after the election to postpone decisions on the expirations, those painful arguments about taxes and spending will remain squarely on the agenda in 2013.

Then comes the delivery of the president’s budget, which is supposed to include a plan to put the debt-ridden nation on the path to a balanced budget. Then comes the need to deal with revamping Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs, all while sustaining or — if Romney is elected and does what he has pledged — dramatically increasing the Pentagon budget.

Hanging over all those deliberations will be another proposal to raise the debt ceiling, the same debate that brought the government to the brink of shutdown in the summer of 2011 and triggered a national credit downgrade.

Neither candidate is expected to assume office with an overwhelming mandate such as Obama received four years ago, when he won the White House with a huge electoral victory. Still, there are a few possibilities for an end to partisan gridlock.

If Obama is reelected, the Republicans would no longer be crusading for his ouster and may feel greater pressure — and latitude — to compromise on long-term fiscal plans. The White House winner also could benefit if the economy improves more rapidly than expected in 2013. Better economic times could produce greater party cooperation.

If Romney captures the White House, he may live up to his promise to reach across the aisle in bipartisan fashion to solve fiscal problems. But he may find Democrats, bitter after the GOP adamancy of the Obama years, to be unhelpful partners when it comes to Republican goals like cutting taxes for the rich, reducing safety-net programs, and dramatically increasing military spending.

In all likelihood, remembering how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, Democrats may use their power on Capitol Hill to block key Republican initiatives, particularly if the GOP refuses to compromise on tax increases for the wealthy. Romney also has campaigned on a promise to repeal Obama’s signature health care overhaul, a move Democrats strongly oppose and which doubtless would trigger a major partisan collision.

Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said in an interview that it would be impossible to forge a bipartisan compromise if Romney is elected, and he sticks to his pledge against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

“There’s absolutely no path to move forward on a bipartisan basis with Mitt Romney,” Van Hollen said, noting that bipartisan commissions have recommended both spending cuts and tax increases. “He himself has taken the bipartisan solution off the table.”

Van Hollen said that if Obama is reelected, he would be able to convince enough Republicans that the public wants a compromise approach.

Republicans, however, have argued that it was Obama and the Democrats who set the course for polarization by passing the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 health care legislation despite overwhelming Republican opposition.

“Give me a break,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and Romney adviser. Obama “didn’t fulfill the promise of bridging the partisan divide. When he said that ‘we are not red states, we are not blue states, we are the United States,’ everybody cheered that line. The problem is it didn’t happen.”

The partisan furies in Washington did not suddenly rise in a vacuum. Much of the rancor between the parties sprang from the tumultuous geopolitical and economic events of the past decade. George W. Bush’s first-term invasion of Iraq and the prolonged war proved deeply unpopular, stirring a wave of anger among liberal Democrats. Antiwar sentiment, combined with upheaval and dismay during the economic crisis of 2008, helped sweep Obama into office.

Intense ideological warfare

But Obama’s mandate quickly eroded. Strong Republican opposition to the new president’s economic and health care initiatives was manifested by growth of the Tea Party and the GOP takeover of the House in 2010. For virtually all of Obama’s term, the parties engaged in intense ideological warfare about the appropriate role of government and the size of the social safety net.

Polling conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center revealed the deepest ideological divide in 25 years between Americans who identify with one or the other of the two major parties. The size and performance of government, the future of the safety net, immigration policy, and environmental protection are the areas of deepest disagreement.

“Part of the antagonisms in Washington has to do with the fact that the country has become that way too,’’ said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

The gaps are partly caused by geographic and demographic differences. Rural America has long favored Republicans, while the financial and education centers on the coasts vote Democratic. Those seemingly indelible red and blue patterns on the electoral map reveal why just only a half-dozen or so states — Ohio and the other swing states — play outsized roles in deciding presidential elections.

Specialists say recent economic anxieties have made these partisan differences more profound – conservatives want less spending while Democrats see greater need for government assistance to the disadvantaged.

Booming exurbs across the country, for instance, have been hit hardest by the mortgage industry collapse and foreclosure crisis. Residents of all those sprawling subdivisions are frustrated by dwindling employment opportunities and plunging home values — and they tend to identify themselves as Republican.

Higher government spending on the social safety net and big programs like “Obamacare” rankle residents of these far-flung exurbs more than their liberal, wealthier counterparts in traditional suburbs, said Dante Chinni, executive director of Patchwork Nation, a project of the nonprofit Jefferson Institute in Washington that closely tracks the political preferences of demographic and geographic groupings.

“It’s a lot easier to see it as wasteful, particularly when you’re struggling,’’ said Chinni.

Both sides in Washington couch their arguments in terms of fairness, but the visions of what is fair are fundamentally at odds. Democrats see the path out of gridlock as resting on creating a fairer playing field for the middle class, a better-regulated economy, and a more progressive tax system that ensures the wealthy pay their fair share. Republicans describe fair government as one that regulates less, levies fewer taxes on “job creators,’’ and spends less on providing economic security to the disadvantaged.

Romney’s campaign is based on his party’s mantra that government is too large and that too many people rely on federal programs, a notion that Romney took to the extreme when he was secretly recorded saying that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as “victims.” While Romney backed away from that comment, he has stuck by his view that the economy would be improved by lowering taxes and reducing regulations.

A question of fairness

For now, answers to fairness questions — for the middle class, on the safety net, on corporate and individual tax rates, on environmental regulation — remain elusive.

“There’s just no question that the capacity of our political system to respond to recognized problems is really weak right now. This last congressional session was one of the least productive since the 19th century,’’ said Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale University and co-author of “Winner-Take-All Politics,’’ an examination of the influence of business lobbying on growing wage disparities.

“It’s a philosophical debate at one level, and at another level it’s almost an espistemological debate, in the sense that it is a debate about each side denying the claims of the other side,’’ he said.

“The polarization has been asymmetric,’’ he added, “as Republicans have moved farther to the right than Democrats have to the left.’’

Part of the reason is the influence of Tea Party activists, who have repeatedly fielded primary challengers against GOP incumbents they deem too moderate.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar who has long studied the nation’s divisions, drew much attention earlier this year with the release of a book co-authored with Thomas Mann that laid much of the blame for the widening divide on the Republican Party.

The book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” made clear that Democrats also were at fault, but said Republicans had taken polarization to new heights as part of a deliberate political strategy to stymie Obama and win back the White House.

The nonpartisan scholars concluded that the Republican Party “has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Republicans deny this accusation and say their attempts to remove Democrats’ pet projects from the stimulus package were rejected, as well as their attempts in the Senate to negotiate a bipartisan version of the health care law.

Elections provide opportunities to clarify the issues and settle disputes, with the winner being awarded a mandate and a political honeymoon. But the polarization between party leaders is so vast, and the leftover problems such as debt so severe, that the honeymoon period after the 2012 election is likely to be brief.

Once the ballots are counted Tuesday, Republicans are expected to retain control of the House, where Tea Party forces have pulled the Republican Party further to the right, making it difficult for party leaders to strike deals with Democrats.

It is unclear who will control the Senate. Democrats, including two New England independents who caucus with the party, currently control the chamber by 53 to 47.

The latest polls indicate that Democrats may maintain their majority by a slim margin. In any case, neither party is expected to have anything close to a 60-vote, filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Some Republicans have said that if Romney has a GOP majority in both chambers of Congress, he should drop his rhetoric about working with Democrats and do what Obama did on health care — pass legislation without the need for a single vote from the opposition party. While that could exacerbate divisions, Republicans would likely justify it on grounds that Romney would be following through on the agenda that was the basis of the campaign.

Democrats likely would be just as aggressive in using the filibuster to block Romney’s measures as Republicans were in trying to stop Obama. But it might only take a few conservative Democrats to split with the party and join with Republicans in order to pass Romney’s agenda, particularly if Romney carried the home state of a Democratic senator by a comfortable margin.

Possible GOP strategy

The clash could come to a head if, as many Republicans are urging, Romney tries to implement key parts of his agenda under what is known as a budget “reconciliation” bill, which is not subject to filibuster. It takes the votes of 60 senators to end a filibuster, but a reconciliation bill could go forward with 51 votes.

Ornstein said in an interview that a Romney presidency might actually suffer if Republicans control both the House and Senate. Ramming through deep cuts in a raft of programs, while dramatically increasing defense spending, would inevitably provoke anger as the depths of the reductions in government service become clear.

“The nightmare for Romney is that Republicans win it all, because he has no excuses at that point,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “He has favored their agenda.”

In the long run, with their negative assaults and entrenched positions, the parties are turning voters off. The largest group of voters today is independents, who make up 38 percent of the electorate, followed by Democrats at 32 percent and Republicans at 24 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Those numbers may provide an opportunity if the next president seeks middle ground. Indeed, it is a tradition nearly as old as the nation: a freshly inaugurated president seizes the moment to call for an end to partisan wrangling.