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To be partisan

Karl Rove & George Bush

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par·ti·san

noun, [Origin: 1545–55; < MF < Upper It parteźan (Tuscan partigiano), equiv. to part(e) faction, part + -eźan (< VL *-és- -ese + L -iānus -ian)]

1. an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, esp. a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance; a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance;

2 a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines

In the past two weeks, a fight has broken out in the Democratic primaries between John Edwards and Barack Obama (with Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton playing supporting roles for Edwards) over the best way to effect change. Edwards insists that in order to effect change, we must fight for it and demand it. He argues that those in power, who are benefiting from the current system, will not give up their powers or benefits easily. We, as the people, as the government, need to wrest the power from the powerful and end the corrupt system that does not benefit the majority of Americans. We need to force change upon those in power. As Krugman has put it, seconded by many Edwards supporters, and echoed in her way by Hillary Clinton: we need to be partisan, because partisan force is the only way to effect change. Obama has a different view on how to effect change. He says that lasting change comes from consensus – and that partisanship is one of the biggest obstacles we face in effecting lasting and significant change.

The conversation around the web

This back and forth has prompted one of the better public discussions in recent years – both substantial and interesting. Paul Krugman has attacked Obama as the anti-change candidate, for opposing health care mandates, for attacking John Edwards, and for talking about the problems with Social Security. Others have weighed in: the Street Corner Society, Michael Schwartz, Greg Sargent, Richard Baehr, John McCormick, Frank Rich (here, here, and here), David Brooks (here, here, and here) and Sam Sedaei.

The value of partisanship

Paul Krugman illustrates as well as anyone the value of partisanship. For a political minority, partisanship is the key to survival, and the only means of blocking change. Partisanship is, in essence, a defense. The problem with the Democrats from 1994 to 2005, and even with some Democrats today, is that they were trying to be non-partisan in an environment that demands steadfast opposition – that demands partisanship.

There is little doubt that from 1994 until the impeachment of Bill Clinton that the political environment was moving rightward; and after September 11, the country swung rightward again. During this time, Democrats continued to act on the assumptions that had served them well for the past few decades. Confident that the nation was behind them, they attempted to make reasonable compromises. In this, they made two errors: first, they assuming that the nation was still behind them, when on several important issues, it was not; second, they assumed that the people they were dealing with were reasonable. But the Republicans from the class of 1994 were ideologues. Bill Clinton saw this, and saw his presidency imperiled, he started triangulating – trying undercut the conservative agenda by adopting it. It was a brilliant strategy – but it failed in one key area. It left liberal Democrats to fend for themselves and undercut the partisanship that would be needed to effectively oppose and reverse the gains Republicans had made.

To this day, the Democrats have only made minor gains in their effectiveness to oppose Republicans. But, thankfully, the country has turned, and we are now faced with (another) historic moment.

Although as long as President Bush is in power, the Democrats must take a partisan strategy in Washington, those candidates running for President themselves should focus on the future, and on growing the Democratic party.

The flaw of partisanship

If partisanship is the best strategy for a minority party, because, by it’s nature it is biased and divides the population; it is not the best strategy for a majority party. To me, this is one of the key lessons of the past seven years of Rove-Bush. Despite tremendous advantages, Rove failed to turn September 11 into the defining conservative moment he sought because he never ceased to be partisan. By forcing the change they sought through again and again, by marginalizing moderates, by alienating liberals, Rove and Bush set a timer on how long any of the changes they sought would last and destroyed the possibility of a conservative realignment.

Barack Obama makes clear what he wants to do – and what it seems only he can do, based on polling data – to unite the country, to bring in liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents in order to face the serious challenges America faces. He wants to forge real change – which requires consensus and the judgment about when to stand firm and when to compromise.

After September 11, America united. George W. Bush, with his relentless partisanship, re-polarized the nation in the aftermath. In 2008, we need a president with the judgment to know when to fight and when to compromise. We need a president who can bring the country together to forge lasting change – not the short-term fixes that fall apart with every change of office. In 2008 we need a president who can bring the country together to face the issues of global climate change, terrorism, runaway executive power, extremism in the Middle East, a declining dollar, tremendous deficits, and escalating entitlement spending.

Partisanship can only take us so far. In 2008, we need Barack Obama.

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