WASHINGTON -- It is an irony, but not a coincidence, that Barack Obama's post-partisan era has seen the rise of the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street. Certainly, the momentum of polarization was strong before Obama arrived in Washington.
Over the last few decades, Republican and Democratic congressional delegations have been churned into ideological homogeneity. Members seem to inhabit not different parties but different planets. The number of Americans who call themselves moderates has declined, while the number of people identifying as conservatives or liberals has increased. Both sides find their beliefs reinforced by partisan media, for whom ideology has become a marketing tool.
Every ideological slight -- every Nazi comparison, every intemperate comment by a pastor or union leader -- is elevated into a national controversy. The Internet and cable news have become an endless buffet feeding the outrage of a nation. But far from halting or reversing these trends, Obama has actively worsened them -- setting the stage for the most polarized election of recent history. His failure has generally not been a matter of tone but of policy.
The president's early post-partisan rhetoric was never matched by innovative ideas that crossed ideological lines and created new coalitions. Bill Clinton had welfare reform. George W. Bush had No Child Left Behind. Obama, in contrast, pursued a liberalism both bold and uncreative -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, a brand new health entitlement, the largest deficits in American history. Congressional Republicans were obstructionists -- but often because Obama's aggressive ideological power play made obstructionism identical with Republicanism.
GOP members could not accept an ambitious expansion of the size and role of government without surrendering their identity. Some in the GOP have enjoyed their role in opposition too much. But they were given few incentives to temper it.
The public response ran in parallel -- a tea party revolt and a near landslide Republican midterm election. Liberal accusations that this reaction was artificial, irrational or race-based only fed the polarization. In typical fashion, many offended conservatives have also engaged in ideological overreach, calling for a government cut to the size of an 18th-century agrarian republic.
Feeling provoked himself, Obama has now abandoned the pretense of post-partisanship. He runs for re-election on the platform of funding unreformed entitlements with higher taxes on the wealthy. It is hard to imagine a more typical, tired, polarizing Democratic message. It is a surrender to predictable national division.