There are some who stress the positives of polarization -- that it encourages conviction, participation and clear political choices. The defense of partisanship is oddly bipartisan. It can be heard among activists at tea party rallies and in New York's Zuccotti Park. But polarization complicates the task of governing. A highly partisan majority -- as Obama proved during his first two years -- can get things done. It just can't get the most important things done.
For America to remain a competitive economic power, the president and legislature need to undertake a series of complex, controversial reforms of the tax code and entitlement system. This will be hard enough without the cultivation of ideological rigidity and mutual disdain. A partisan populism has its virtues and uses. But it would do little good to ask a delegation from the tea party and one from Occupy Wall Street to meet in a room and hammer out an entitlement reform package. The hammers would be used for different purposes.
Our urgent need is not for politicians who reflect partisan passions but for officials willing to risk partisan wrath in pursuit of the public good. This message is properly directed at both parties. But Obama's embrace of unreconstructed liberalism ultimately hurts his party more. For a variety of historical reasons, the Democratic Party is more ideologically diverse than the GOP. While about 40 percent of Democrats identify themselves as liberals, more than 70 percent of Republicans call themselves conservatives. So when Obama channels the spirit of LBJ -- or when Occupy Wall Street protesters are embraced as Democratic poster children -- the risks of division within his political coalition are serious.
Democratic candidates in places such as Missouri, Nebraska, Louisiana or Montana are forced to distance themselves from national Democratic ideology on tax increases and the expansion of government. When Obama whips up the liberal base to serve his political interests, it betrays a number of Democrats down the ticket. It also betrays the appealing, unifying candidate who ran in 2008. We are being asked to re-elect a political figure who no longer exists.