The problem with the Senate is not that you can’t get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It’s that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn’t impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It’s impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don’t gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That’s the equivalent of saying to your employer, “Don’t give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year.”
As I’ve said before, it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill. But it’s very easy to build out a model explaining why Republicans would vote for a bill that would help them if it passed and against a bill that would hurt them if it failed. Same goes for Democrats. Good-faith disagreement is not the explanation that best fits the data.
Ezra Klein makes an important observation that – for those who accept it – changes dramatically how the political battles of the Obama administration are viewed:
We are less bipartisan in process even as we have become more bipartisan in substance.
Klein points out – as I had earlier – how Obama’s proposals for health care reform and cap and trade for example both have a solid grounding in previous Republican approaches to these problems – and in fact take into account many of the Republicans’ deep-seated distrusted of government action in general. Yet despite this, Republicans have continued to claim that Obama is the second-coming of Stalin – repudiating ideas they only a short time ago embraced.
One can see the seeds of this entrenchment against Obama in the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton – as they truly hated and demonized the man as a radical leftist even as he governed as a moderate liberal. Republicans were still willing to work with Clinton on a number of initiatives including welfare reform. Thus far, they have embraced a nihilistic path of pure opposition to Obama.
The Democrats did not similarly react to George W. Bush – as they proved willing to work with him on matters that they held to be important and/or which were popular with their constituencies. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush’s several rounds of tax cuts, and Medicare Part D. Democrats were willing to work with the White House despite the extremely partisan processes instituted in Congress cutting Democrats off from policy-making. And they were willing to hand Bush victories that were not “bipartisan in substance” – most especially his tax cuts which were thoroughly partisan and ideologically motivated.
In other words – Klein’s statement that, “We are less bipartisan in process even as we have become more bipartisan in substance” only holds true for the past year. To some degree, this is House Democrats fault for making the process less bipartisan – but I find it hard to blame them considering the unprecedented procedural tactics used by the Republicans as well as their unprincipled intransigence.
1. Down with the Fed! William Greider suggests we “dismantle the temple” that is the Federal Reserve in a piece this week. Greider is not only one of my favorite authors and one of the best writers on economics, he is also one of the foremost experts on the Federal Reserve. They key problem for Greider is that the Federal Reserve is an essentially anti-democratic institution:
The Federal Reserve is the black hole of our democracy – the crucial contradiction that keeps the people and their representatives from having any voice in these most important public policies.
Ezra Klein gives the piece a symapthetic audience, but then explains his reservations:
[F]or a period of time, Ben Bernanke ran our economy under a monetarist’s version of martial law. And the really problematic thing is that it probably worked. It may be all that saved us. You could argue that in the absence of the Federal Reserve, Congress would have been a whole lot more aggressive and responsible because Bernanke wouldn’t have been there to backstop them. But would you really want to bet the U.S. economy on it?
2. Sanity on the Henry Gates Controversy. Jacob Sullum in Reason‘s Hit ‘n’ Run blog gives what I think to be the essential take-away from the Gates fiasco:
[E]ven if we accept the facts as presented by Crowley, it’s clear he abused his authority, whether or not the color of Gates’ skin had anything to do with it.
Let’s say Gates did initially refuse to show his ID (an unsurprising response from an innocent man confronted by police in his own home). Let’s say he immediately accused Crowley of racism, raised his voice, and behaved in a “tumultuous” fashion. Let’s say he overreacted. So what? By Crowley’s own account, he arrested Gates for dissing him.
3. The Appearance of Bipartisanship Creates Popularity. Matt Yglesias has an interesting piece exploring the difference between how the media treats the relationship between public opinon, Congress, and policy issues and how that relationship actually works.
4. Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery. Ezra Klein points out that one passage from Obama’s speech Wednesday night seemed to be taking arguments directly from articles by Steven Pearlstein and David Leonhardt this week that got a lot of traction in the blogosphere. Both columns are worth reading even independent of their apparent influence on the Obama administration’s tactics.
5. Krugman on Cap and Trade Speculation. Paul Krugman takes on doubters encouraged by Matt Taibbi’s piece describing cap-and-trade as a giant scheme:
The solution to climate change must rely to an important extent on market mechanisms — it’s too complex an issue to deal with using command-and-control. That means accepting that some people will make money out of trading — and that yes, sometimes trading will go bad. So? We’ve got a planet at stake; it’s crazy to cut off our future to spite Goldman Sachs’s face.
6. A Laid-back Beat. Lastly, I came across this song in an episode of the British series Skins this week:
[Photo by me.]
[digg-reddit-me]Arnold Schwarzeneger brilliantly demonstrated the idiocy of postpartisanship in his appearance on This Week:
The policy position Schwarzeneger is defending here makes a lot of sense – as you can see if you check out a more in-depth clip. But his justification is typical of the conventional definition of postpartisanship (and it’s close cousin, bipartisanship). I tried to make a distinction during the election battle between a “bipartisan McCain” and a “postpartisan Obama.” I described the difference between the tactic of bipartisanship which ” is about compromise, getting things done, protecting the status quo, and consenus” and postpartisanship which 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.” I think this distinction still makes sense but the terms are so often used by politicians seeking political cover that defining them almost seems pointless.
So, I’m making here an additional distinction – between anti-partisanship and post-partisanship. A significant amount of the rhetoric about partisanship, bipartisanship, and postpartisanship by politicians is really about anti-partisanship. McCain claimed he was being “bipartisan” because he vocally opposed some of his party’s positions. His whole maverick persona was based on his bucking of his party on certain issues. On these issues, McCain became a partisan for the Democratic positions. Joe Lieberman who also claims the mantle of “bipartisanship” has a similar political profile – as he likewise became a partisan for the Republicans on those issues on which he agreed with them. The more appropriate description of this attitude is not “bipartisan” but anti-partisan. It is not about reaching across ideological or party lines – but about rejecting one’s own party or team. Similarly, Schwarzeneger here states that if both parties oppose something, it must be good for the people. This is an insight into the anti-partisan mindset – that views parties themselves as perverting democracy.
There is an essential truth to this anti-partisan idea. Glenn Greenwald, a prominent liberal partisan, for example admits that “no party has a monopoly on good ideas and there’s nothing wrong with compromising with the other party when doing so yields superior policies.” Schwarzeneger makes a similar point in the longer clip, and Obama has made this point prominently as well:
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.
While everyone seems to agree that partisanship can be limiting and blinding – and that we should be willing to take the best ideas of our opponents – there is less agreement on what the right approach should be. Greenwald, an unabashed partisan, included the caveat: “bipartisanship for its own sake elevates process over substance.” He frequently rails against bipartisanship which he often sees as a cover for Democrats to cave in to Republican instransigience. And he certainly has a point – as any look at the Democrats in Congress under George W. Bush will reveal. Governor Schwarzeneger sees partisanship as his enemy – and he often takes on Republicans with the support of Democrats and vice versa. From the clip above, you get a sense of his approach.
And then you have Barack Obama. He clearly sees the problem with partisanship; yet he has not adopted the anti-partisan approach of McCain and Schwarzeneger. He almost always favors liberal and progressive policies – and rarely rejects his party to work with Republican partisans. But he does work with Republican partisans – he seeks common ground, civil dialogue, and an engagement with the ideologies that motivate the Republican party. You can see this in his initial health care plan – which did not inclued a mandate due to a desire to limit government coercion. You can see this in the tax cuts that made up more than a third of his stimulus bill. You can see this in his pivoting towards entitlement reform and a plan to reduce the deficit. You can see this in his overall approach to the financial crisis – which is clearly Keynesian, but leavened a Hayekian acknowledgment of the limits of economics and central planning.
Obama’s post-partisanship is a flexible and pragmatic set of beliefs in honest engagement with those beliefs that oppose them. He does not define his politics by standing in between the parties or against one party of another. Rather, he is an unabashed liberal who takes conservative critiques of liberalism into account, and who continues to seek civil dialogue and engagement with his opponents. Greenwald criticized Obama’s approach to partisanship for being about process – and it is about process – but that is it’s value rather than it’s shortcoming.
Where is the evidence of the supposed partisan wrangling that we hear so much about? Just examine the question dispassionately. Look at every major Bush initiative, every controversial signature Bush policy over the last eight years, and one finds virtually nothing but massive bipartisan support for them — the Patriot Act (original enactment and its renewal); the invasion of Afghanistan; the attack on, and ongoing occupation of, Iraq; the Military Commissions Act (authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques, abolishing habeas corpus, and immunizing war criminals); expansions of warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity; declaring part of Iran’s government to be “terrorists”; our one-sided policy toward Israel; the $700 billion bailout; The No Child Left Behind Act, “bankruptcy reform,” and on and on.
Most of those were all enacted with virtually unanimous GOP support and substantial, sometimes overwhelming, Democratic support: the very definition of “bipartisanship.” That’s just a fact.
Moreover, Bush’s appointments of judges were barely ever impeded, resulting in a radical transformation of the federal courts. Other than John Bolton and Steven Bradbury, not a single significant Bush nominee was blocked. Those who implemented Bush’s NSA program (Michael Hayden) and authorized his torture program (Alberto Gonzales) were confirmed for promotions. The Bush administration committed war crimes, broke long-standing surveillance laws, politicized prosecutions, and explicitly claimed the right to break our laws, yet Congress did nothing about any of that except to authorize most of it, and investigated virtually none of it. With regard to many of those transgressions, key Democratic leaders were briefed at the time they were implemented and quietly acquiesced, did nothing to stop any of it. Both parties are in virtually unanimous agreement that our highest political leaders should be exempt from accountability under the rule of law even for the grave crimes that have been committed.
As The Washington Post‘s Dan Froomkin observed at the end of last year: “Historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed.” How much more harmonious – “bipartisan” – can the two parties get?
[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.1
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, homosexuality2 – 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.
- 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. [↩]
- And government spending fits in here too, but not as neatly, so I will reserve this issue. [↩]