The Difference Between McCain’s Bi-Partisanship and Obama’s Post-Partisanship


By Joe Campbell
September 18th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]It drives me nuts the way so many otherwise intelligent people seem to accept the fact that bi-partisanship is the answer to our country’s problems. It makes me even more frustrated that John McCain has been able to sell bi-partisanship as a type of reform. Bi-partisanship is neither of these things.

The first thing to make clear is that bi-partisanship is only a tactic. It is not a philosophy. It is not a theory of government. It is a way to get things done. Bi-partisanship is generally used for one of two ends:

  1. To avoid taking action or making a decision on a controversial issue; or
  2. To avoid responsibility for the consequences of an action that needs to be taken or a decision that needs to be made.

Bi-partisanship is sometimes – to paraphrase Churchill’s defense of democracy – the worst influence on government, except for all of the others. On certain issues which have paralyzed the government, bi-partisanship is sometimes the only answer. When paired with a robust federal system – which allows regions and states to pass more specific legislation on contentious issues – it is sometimes the only way to keep a country together. The culture wars of the 1990s involved good examples of issues that fit this criteria – issues such as abortion, gay rights, and gun control. When two roughly equal sides have solidified their positions, based on their lifestyle and their core values, forcing either partisan position onto the public at large becomes political suicide and creates backlash. Thus, the only solution is a bi-partisan mish-mash that accomplishes as little as possible while giving cover to both sides.

On other issues that require action on the part of the government, bi-partisanship is the most politically feasible way to deal with sensitive issues – such as social security, war, climate change, government bail-outs, and immigration. Bi-partisanship is a political necessity with these issues because it allows blame to be diffused for the inevitable negative consequences of dealing with these issues. On these issues, federalism doesn’t work – and federal action must be taken in order to deal with the issue effectively. Both sides generally compromise what they want – and the result is sometimes effective and sometimes not. Generally bi-partisanship of this type is only able to be summoned during a crisis, or on the verge of an immediate crisis.

But even the defenders of bi-partisanship must realize that it is the system of bi-partisanship itself that has propped up many corrupt practices throughout American history – from slavery to segregation to the centralizing of power in Washington to the culture of lobbying. Slavery was not ended until it became a partisan issue. Official segregation was ended on a bi-partisan basis, but that compromise created a partisan backlash that reshaped the party landscape. The final two issues are still supported by a bi-partisan consensus and attacked by members of both parties.

Bi-partisanship – in essence – only acts to protect the status quo. In those rare instances in which it has been used for reform – rather than to shore up and protect the status quo – the bi-partisan consensus has quickly been destroyed as other influences took advantage of the inevitable backlash that accompanies reform.

As described, bi-partisanship is about compromise, getting things done, protecting the status quo, and consenus. Which is why it is so ridiculous to call McCain a bi-partisan figure. There are virtually no issues on which McCain has been bi-partisan. Most of the examples given of McCain’s bi-partisanship instead point to instances in which he became a partisan for the other side.

McCain was not being bi-partisan – he stood against his party and with the Democrats. His positions were not “bi-partisan” – they were examples of a Republican acknowledging his party had the wrong position.

It is also worth noting that the Republican party, on all of these issues that McCain broke with them, had blatantly wrong and unserious positions. Defending torture? Denying global warming despite the widespread consensus of scientists? It certainly takes a measure of courage to stand up to your party, even when it is  clearly wrong, but if you think your party is so clearly wrong on so many issues, why do you remain a member of that party? This was the question that McCain faced in the years after Bush’s initial election – and why he was considered as John Kerry’s running mate and why he considered switching parties.

But something happened on the way to 2008 – and McCain, who had acted as a partisan for the Democratic positions on a number of issues, backed away from these positions and adopted hardline conservative positions – which is what makes his current bragging about bi-partisanship so clever. He is essentially telling conservatives to believe what he says and what the hard-advisers who have surrounded him say and not what he has done in the past; at the same time, he is telling independents and potential Democratic supporters that he has a history of bi-partisanship, and that they should trust that his past actions rather than his current words, advisers, policies, and campaign.

This is all very different than Obama’s post-partisanship. While bi-partisanship is merely a tactic, post-partisanship is a specific approach to governing that calls for bi-partisanship as a tactic to neutralize certain issues while advocating common sense, a focus on the long-term, and an emphasis on “tinkering” to deal with more significant issues.

This term was initially used by conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in the late 1990s to describe an agenda which consisted of entitlement reform and deficit reduction – perhaps the two greatest accomplishments of the Clinton presidency. The term fell out of use until Gov. Schwarzenegger and Mayor Bloomberg became prominent figures, in a large part by eschewing controversy and culture war issues and focusing on longer-term issues. Obama, though not using the words himself, was seen as a post-partisan figure because his approach to politics was a more progressive take on the Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg approach.

Obama’s post-partisanship calls for a focus on common ground over division on culture war issues – and strives to neutralize them – as Obama attempted to do in his acceptance speech in Denver. Obama sees these issues primarily as distractions from the systematic and strategic long-term challenges America has been avoiding for the past twenty years while engaged in these culture wars. Post-partisanship attempts to synethsize the best points made by the opposition while still taking action. This approach stands in opposition to Clinton’s triangulation which was a political tactic used to accomplish neo-liberal ends. Instead, post-partisanship takes into account the essential ideological critique of the opposition and proposes programs which pragmatically deal with long-term issues.

More than anything else, post-partisanship calls for tinkering – trying new approaches and sticking with what works, no matter the idea’s ideological pedigree:

I’m a Democrat. I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.

Obama’s health care plan is a good example of this agnosticism and post-partisanship. In dealing with a serious, long-term issue, he incorporates markets, avoids coercion, and yet makes a solid attempt at fixing a broken system by tinkering with what we have.

McCain’s “bi-partisanship” has consisted of breaking with his party on a number of issues and siding with Barack Obama and the Democrats – and he deserves credit for that. But Obama’s post-partisanship is actually a strategy that describes how he will govern. That’s the difference.