The “Benefits” of Bipartisanship

There are times for bipartisanship. There are issues on which members of both political parties agree, and sometimes those issues produce landmark legislation. There are also times when, like in diplomacy, compromise is necessary to achieve anything at all. However, I am convinced that bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake is not a virtue.

Without getting excessively Hegelian, I believe that there is an element of truth in the operation of a dialectic, especially regarding the reform of government. Where honest debate and honest intentions exist, a conflict between different reforming priorities should produce a synthesis containing the best of each world view. This is largely the dynamic that drove the British reforms of the 19th century, which expanded the franchise, introduced labor laws, and created the beginnings of a social safety net (see footnote below).

Unfortunately, bipartisanship, especially the version practiced in America whereby Democrats water down their principles to attract (unnecessary) Republican votes, preempts this dynamic. Years of milquetoast Democratic rule neither corrects the excesses of the previous Republican rule, nor does it sufficiently advance the goals of progressive ideology to allow for a true synthesis. The result is a political system in which the ‘centrist’ point of view is inexorably pulled to the right. I do not believe that this reflects the viewpoints of Americans in general, but rather the scope of ‘permitted discourse’ as represented in the media (see this wonderful discussion of this phenomenon here.) This then shapes the world view of the next generation.

All of this goes to say that I am very disappointed in President Obama’s approach to passing the stimulus plan. More on the flip.

Yesterday, the House passed the stimulus plan with not a single Republican vote. This despite numerous concessions that slashed spending in favor of tax cuts. This despite an amendment that restored funding for mass transit cut from the original version. Indeed, almost a 1/3rd of the stimulus package is tax cuts, which economists agree will have a less stimulating impact on the economy than spending increases. A similar dynamic will probably play out in the Senate, although the likelihood of cross-over Republican votes is higher.

This is not a surprising outcome, there was no political upside for the radicalized Republican minority to support legislation unsupported by their base and for which they would receive no credit if it proved successful. Equally, this is not a loss for President Obama, despite claims from some in the media. Instead, it is an opportunity for Democrats to craft a plan with a greater chance of success. Take it away Senator John Kerry.

Reacting to Wednesday night’s vote in the House — where not a single GOP member supported the stimulus package — Kerry told Politico that “if Republicans aren’t prepared to vote for it, I don’t think we should be giving up things, where I think the money can be spent more effectively.”

“If they’re not going to vote for it, let’s go with a plan that we think is going to work.”

The Massachusetts Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate suggested tossing some of the tax provisions in the stimulus that the GOP requested. “Those aren’t job creators immediately, and even in the longer term they’re not necessarily. We’ve seen that policy for the last eight years,” he said.

This is the correct approach. More than simply being better for the country, it will also be better for the party. In 2010, Democrats will be attacked for the stimulus plan acting insufficiently quickly, regardless of its success. A handful of Republican votes will not stop these attacks. Instead, the goal should be to have the best possible plan so that the recovery will be noticeable and a successful defense may be mounted.

In addition, see Glenn Greenwald’s discussion of the fantasy of bipartisanship.

Footnote: I don’t actually accept that all Republicans have honest intentions or a commitment to honest debate. Nor do I accept that all Democrats do. This leads to the possibility of a disastrous race to the bottom. Still, while I believe that Democrats’ greatest weakness is an unwillingness to stand for their principles, I believe that Republican principles are the core problem. It is not their vigorous defense of ideals that I find objectionable, it is that those ideals remain unchecked and unexamined in the face of clear factual evidence to the contrary. And so, I am reminded of J.S. Mill’s reformers’ prayer:

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies. Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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