It took Barack Obama just two days after he was sworn in as president to toss overboard the “bipartisan” malarkey that had been one of the dominant themes of his campaign narrative.
On Jan. 22, he invited top congressional leaders from both parties to the White House to discuss his ideas for an economic stimulus plan. One of the goals of the meeting was to promote bipartisanship, but after listening to Republicans gripe about some of his proposed measures, Obama quieted them by saying, quite simply, “I won.”
The stimulus bill was subsequently passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with the vote in both chambers breaking down almost perfectly along party lines. It’s been straight downhill since then on the hands-across-Congress front, with the sniping and potshotting escalating steadily to the point where last week Rush Limbaugh called bipartisanship “a false premise” and said that any good Republican should actually be hoping for Obama’s plan to fail.
So much for Obama’s vow of “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Bipartisanship is one of those political ideals, like its kissing cousins “centrism,” “compromise” and “consensus,” to which everyone feels they have to pay lip service, and being against it is like being against motherhood or chocolate cake. Except that when people invoke its virtues they often fudge just what it is they are getting at.
Certainly a “bipartisan” political culture that makes a point of talking to one’s political opponents as well-intentioned people who actually have the nation’s best interests at heart is not a bad thing. Along with this goes a willingness to take good ideas, no matter where they come from, a genuinely pragmatic habit of mind that every political leader would do well to cultivate.
Bipartisanship is also an occasionally necessary tactic. In a democracy, every leader will at times find it necessary to bring at least some members of the opposition on board.
But in each of these cases, negotiation and compromise is a means to an end, a political instrument useful when it helps bring about a desired policy outcome. As Obama himself replied to the parade of journalists demanding to know why his bipartisan agenda went sour so quickly, the bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is “does it create or save jobs”—a goal about which there can be no compromise.
As Arianna Huffington put it recently, the “Washington definition” of centrism or bipartisanship, though, boils down to this: going to the other party, splitting any differences you have, patting each other on the pack about how nice and civil you are, and moving on. This kind of politics is dangerous, and not in the way its supporters would like.
More often than not, bipartisanship leads to bad policy. Splitting the difference between two distinct courses of action won’t give you a golden mean or happy middle path—it will set you on the road to ruin. Is the best way to deal with the current economic downturn massive deficit spending, or massive tax cuts? Sensible people disagree, but one thing is certain is that a half-measure of each is guaranteed to make the situation worse.
Worse, the fetish for consensus is liable to be counterproductive, generating a political culture that is more partisan and polarized. If your political opponent knows you are committed to a bipartisan splitting of the difference between his position and yours, the sensible strategy is for him to tack as far out into his ideological home waters as possible. This was the explicit Republican strategy during the 1990s, when the party reacted to every Democratic initiative by staking out a position as far to the right as they could. This moved the political “centre” ever further to the right, toward which the triangulating Bill Clinton dutifully followed.
But probably the worst knock-on effect of bipartisan politics is that it undermines democratic accountability. Elections are about deciding who shall govern, and governing is largely about choosing between competing interests, policies, and directions. Partisanship is an essential element of democratic politics, and while many find it distasteful, it is an excellent mechanism for apportioning praise when things go well, and blame when they don’t.
Thankfully, Obama clearly sees that the flip side of “splitting the difference” is “spreading the blame,” while the flip side of “I won” is “hold me accountable.” Just this week he signed an order—in the teeth of strong Republican opposition—opening the way for more embryonic stem cell research. And while the House minority leader John Boehner railed against Obama for “futher dividing our nation at a time when we need greater unity,” the President shows no sign of backsliding and trying to curry favour with Republicans just for the sake of appearances.
Obama swept to power by attaching a pretty face and some prettier words to two of the oldest clichés in politics—change, and unity—which also happen to be rather incompatible ideas. To the extent that change is desirable, it will only be foiled by attempts at cross-party outreach. The fact that Obama knew which idea to jettison as quickly as possible is a testament to his sound political judgment, and regardless of how the stimulus package turns out, a sign of hope for the future of democracy in America.