“October 2013 is off to a wild start,” says Patrick Egan, an assistant professor in NYU's Wilf Family Department of Politics, echoing a sentiment shared by many Americans in the midst of a partial U.S. government shutdown. With nearly a million employees furloughed, the national parks shut, and a variety of federal nutrition, health, and preschool programs disrupted, a collective feeling of disgust toward the dysfunction in Washington is palpable. Most of us know the basics: Congress failed to pass the spending bill because of a partisan disagreement over the Affordable Health Care Act, with Republicans stubbornly insisting on provisions to defund Obamacare, and Democrats just as vehemently opposing them. But if you’ve felt yourself scratching your head over just how it is that the two parties arrived at such an intractable stalemate, you’re probably not alone.
That’s where Egan comes in. The author of the just-published Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics (Cambridge University Press), he’s an expert on “issue ownership,” the name political scientists have given to the phenomenon of Americans consistently telling pollsters they believe Republicans are better at handling some issues, like national security and crime, while trusting Democrats on others, such as education and the environment.
Here’s how issue ownership works: Polling shows that Americans “think Democrats are the party that does a better job at dealing with health care,” Egan says, while naming “Republicans as better at handling the federal budget and reducing the deficit.” The trouble, as Egan’s research indicates, is that the party that “owns” a given issue isn’t necessarily the one that delivers superior performance. It’s just that they each tend to prioritize their owned issues with major legislation and lots of federal spending, and, as Egan puts it, “Americans tend to equate efforts with results.” Worse, driven by interest groups to highlight these “owned” issues, the parties often end up implementing extreme policies that increase polarization.
That, Egan says, is how we’ve ended up with Democrats and Republicans alike delivering inferior and unpopular policies—“clumsy at best, and disastrous at worst”—on the very issues they “own.” Democrats, the health care party, are facing criticism over Obamacare’s confusing rules, delayed provisions, and error-prone websites. Republicans, thought to be the more responsible party when it comes to fiscal matters, have stymied attempts to pass a federal budget bill, causing the shutdown at a vulnerable time of economic recovery. “It’s a rare moment when the dynamics of issue ownership have come to a head for both the Democrats and the Republicans at the very same time,” Egan says.
Will we finally learn our lesson? Don’t count on it. As Egan concludes in his book, “The fact that there is no detectable relationship between parties’ control of government and improvement on the issues the public says they are best able to ‘handle’ leaves few reasons for optimism about accountability.”