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Bipartisanship and the Case of the Missing Moderates

Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest-posting this week. He can be reached at [email protected]

In the wake of Tuesday's "shellacking," the President and Secretary Duncan have already promised that bipartisanship will be the name of the game in the coming session of Congress. Both identified education policy is a key area in which both parties can find common ground. Secretary Duncan told Kendra Marr of Politico that a bipartisan education agenda was not only possible, but could even help bridge the gulf between liberals and conservatives in Congress:

"Am I hopeful? Absolutely," he told POLITICO. "Am I optimistic? Yes. Do I think it's the right thing to do for children, for the country? Absolutely..."

"If we can do that work together through education, it actually might help to lessen some of those tensions in other areas as well," said Duncan, who has put No Child Left Behind reform a top priority early next year. "Maybe our work together can help soothe some of those hurt feelings."

Over at the Washington Post, Nick Anderson's article is guardedly optimistic, suggesting that education is "ripe for deal-making."

Secretary Duncan is right to argue that education policy has been an issue on which Republicans and Democrats have often found common ground. And observers are correct in pointing out that President Obama has curried favor with Republicans because of his stances on merit pay, teacher dismissal, and charter schools.

But the election results have likely made it more difficult to secure such bipartisan agreement, and not only because fiscally conservative Republicans have taken over the House. Moderate members of Congress who once occupied the middle ground between the parties--the prime candidates for a bipartisan coalition--were devastated by this week's election. Many of these members also happen to be the Democrats who are most sympathetic to the President's edgier education reform priorities. The President is left with a more liberal and homogeneous Democratic caucus in the House and will likely confront a more ideologically polarized chamber in January. Both will make bipartisanship more difficult to come by.

I've taken a look at how the House Democrats who lost their reelection bids compare to the rest of the Democratic caucus as a whole using two measures: voting scores published by the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a liberal interest group, and the partisan voting index (PVI), a measure of how much a given congressional district tilts toward one party or the other in presidential elections.

On the day before the election, Cook Political Report rated 100 Democratic seats as "at-risk" (either "lean Democratic," "toss-up," lean Republican," or "likely Republican"). The members in these 100 seats had an average ADA score of 82, compared to an average ADA score of about 90 for the entire Democratic caucus. These Democratic seats had an average PVI of R+2.7, meaning that they represented districts that favored the Republican Party in presidential elections, while Democratic districts as a whole had a PVI of D+8.6.

Of these 100, 65 have either lost or appear likely to lose. These 65 Democrats have an average ADA score of 78, and an average PVI of R+4.8. Twenty-eight of the 54 "Blue Dog" Democrats went down in this election, and 4 more are still locked in a tight race.

Once we eliminate these losing Democrats from the existing Democratic caucus, the resulting group of Democrats has an average ADA score of 94 and an average PVI of D+13.2. These elections have produced a Democratic caucus that is more liberal, more homogeneous, and represents more liberal districts. In short, a big chunk of the middle ground in the House has disappeared.

At its most basic level, bipartisanship requires members of the two parties to agree on something. This criterion is much easier to fulfill when there is a swath of moderate members of either party that occupy common ground. Moderate lawmakers are simply more likely to agree with a member of the opposing party on a policy question than is an ideologue at the end of the ideological spectrum. Bipartisanship is not impossible, but is more difficult to come by in a chamber that is polarized and contains few moderates.

As an issue, education has sometimes transcended these rules of thumb and garnered support from liberals and conservatives alike. But like most contemporary policy debates, federal education policy has lately been dragged into broader disputes about the appropriate role of government, free markets vs. government interference, and wasteful spending.

Moreover, though observers argue that many key Republicans are sympathetic to President Obama's reform-minded goals, they neglect the fact that more liberal Democrats have been reticent to fully embrace the President's stance on teacher incentives and charter schools. Remember, these same liberal House Democrats were willing to "[pull] the rug out from under" Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund to pay for the Edu-jobs, a move that prompted a veto threat from the President. Finally, Republicans have voiced concern that the President's support of moderate education reforms may come with strings attached to the Common Core.

In short, serious questions remain about whether there is a policy package that will line up with the President's preferences, those of his co-partisans, and those of Republicans. As Rick and I remarked back in October, this will require the administration to "thread quite the needle." Secretary Duncan seems dedicated to a spirit of bipartisanship, but we will have to see whether these good intentions alone can lead to compromise and a winning coalition.

--Andrew Kelly

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