Election 2008 McCain Obama Political Philosophy Politics

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

[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.

Election 2008 McCain Obama Politics

McCain Bipartisanship vs. Obama Bipartisanship

[digg-reddit-me]McCain has branded himself “The Original Maverick”. He bases this assertion of his brand on the numerous times he has gone against his party and, in another branding phrase, “Put Country First.” He and his surrogates have asked constantly – and some more independent-minded writers have also asked – “When has Obama challenged his party in a way similar to McCain?” The implication, and sometimes the outright attack, is that Obama is unable or unwilling to challenge the Democratic party in the same way McCain is willing to challenge the Republican party. A good example of this is in Rick Warren’s questions to McCain and Obama at the Saddleback forum. Warren asked McCain:

John, you know that a lot of good legislation dies because of partisan politics, and party loyalty keeps people from really getting forward on putting America’s best first. Can you give me an example of where you led against your party’s interests — oh, this is hard — (LAUGHTER) — and really, maybe against your own best interests for the good of America?

For John McCain, the answers to this question are clear – he stood against his party on the issue of torture (although he later qualified his initial opposition to torturing); he stood against his party on the issue of global warming; he challenged the Bush administration on how they were handling the Iraq war; he stood against his party on Bush’s tax cuts (although he again completely reversed positions on this issue); he stood against the base of his party on the issue of immigration; and he stood against his party on the issue of campaign finance reform. ((I have left out McCain’s Gang of Fourteen compromise which secured the appointments of Roberts and Alito – which is a rare case of McCain’s actual bipartisanship. However, it is worth noting that McCain’s bipartisanship in this instance did not actually result in a compromise for the Republicans – but in a total victory for them.))

In all of these cases, McCain 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.

He went against his party’s interests because he clearly believed his party had the wrong position for America. It is also worth noting that the Republican party on all of these issues had blatantly wrong and unserious positions. Defending torture? Denying global warming despite the widespread consensus of scientists? Rick Warren’s question presumes that Republicans and Democrats are both equally wrong about the issues – and that we can get past this impasse by compromising. But that is not, in fact, the situation. He didn’t compromise and wasn’t bipartisan – he took the side of his political opponents because his party had taken an untenable position. That takes a measure of courage, but to demand Obama take stands against his party, you first have to identify similar no-brainer issues on which the Democratic party has taken a side. Obama instead is faulted for partisanship, in part, for having the same position on these issues as McCain. McCain, for coming to the same conclusions, is a maverick. What few acknowledge is that on the issues on which McCain has stood against his party, they have clearly been in the wrong.

The wedge issues of the 1990s divided the country between conservatives and liberals who competing ideologies – abortion, gun rights, affirmative action, welfare, homosexuality ((And government spending fits in here too, but not as neatly, so I will reserve this issue.)) – these were issues in which both sides had entrenched positions – and on which the country was in broad and deep disagreement. These are issues on which bipartisanship and moderation and federalism are the only solutions – because to legislate either side would leave half of the population in extremely strong disagreement. And it is worth noting that on these issues Obama has embraced bipartisanship – which he understands to mean finding goals both sides agree on related to these issues (from his speech in Denver):

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.


The — the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.


I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.


You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

McCain has rejected bipartisanship on these issues in his presidential campaign – embracing a hard right position on abortion and an enforcement first approach to immigration. His examples of embracing “bipartisanship” are really just examples of him taking the Democratic position.

It’s worth noting in the days ahead how differently these two men define bipartisanship. Obama defines it as working with people you disagree with to find common goals; McCain defines it as standing with the Democrats when he can they are clearly in the right.