Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mark Salter: Featured Blogger

Bipartisanship and Its Pretenders.

The growing center of American political opinion disdains, and rightly so, the puerile bluster and incivility often employed in the practice of politics. That sentiment stongly influences the new President's governing style, expressed in his prudential inaugural address, and his graceful moves to woo the opposition and impress the voters by paying a friendly respect to the station, if not always the views, of Republican office holders and conservative opinion leaders.

President Obama has a wily -- and I use that adjective admiringly -- sense of how to appear in perfect accord with the sentiment of a majority of the public that perceives in partisanship a root cause of the various economic ailments afflicting the country, and the lack of progress toward remedying them. He has done so by being genuinely agreeable in the company of Republicans and appearing patient with their assertions of honest policy differences, without yet hazarding the more complicated work of incorporating any Republican prescriptions into the current fiscal policies of his administration as written into law by Democrats in Congress. Although, it’s fair to note, he has managed to dissuade House Democrats from persisting in a couple of their more politically maladroit maneuvers, recognizing the jeopardy they posed to passage of his stimulus bill. (Taxpayer funded birth control may indeed stimulate activity but, alas, not much in the nature of immediate economic activity beyond, perhaps, the purchase of flowers and a nice meal.)

We are not yet two weeks into his administration, but President Obama has swiftly exercised the enormous political talent that won the presidency by using his considerable charm and graciousness to aggrandize an economic stimulus bill that is unique only for its immense size and otherwise quite common in its appetite for unproductive and, in many respects, injurious government spending and policymaking, into a much desired break with those dreaded “failed policies of the past” (would that America might live to see the day when any failed government spending policy is consigned forever to the past). He understands that if you can’t have bipartisanship in the realm of policymaking a spirit of civility and an advertising wizard’s creativity in marketing the old as new will do in a pinch.

In the hands of clumsier politicians, of course, such attempts at stylistic camouflage can come off quite comically. Witness Speaker Pelosi bumptious entrance into the new spirit of “partisan ambitions be damned; let’s get on with the people’s business.” After ramming through the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote a stimulus bill that harbored a great many objects of liberals’ pent up desire for government command of our economy, she protested her complete innocence as a Democratic party leader:

“I didn’t come here to be partisan. I didn’t come here to be bipartisan. I came here, as did my colleagues, to be nonpartisan, to work for the American people, to do what is in their interest.”

This news that the Speaker has risen above not only the implied vice of partisanship but the assumed virtue of bipartisanship will come as a surprise not only to Republicans in Congress, but to her liberal constituents, residing, as they do, in one of the more strenuously partisan congressional districts in the country.

Obviously, few in Washington, in either party, share the President’s adroitness at helping bad medicine go down tastefully by making civility appetizing enough for a public that thinks it’s hungry for bipartisanship, though many give it their earnest all. Even some of the keenest preachers of bipartisanship have abandoned their fondness for the notion in favor of the “being nice is good enough” school of advancing their governing agenda. The genial E.J. Dionne regularly used his perch on the op-ed page of the Washington Post to beseech Republicans in the years of their ascendancy to show more respect when tackling big national problems for the ideas and patriotism of the Democratic minority. Lately, he prefers a more tactical approach to cross-aisle comity. He laments the President, having treated Republicans nicely, received not a single one of their votes for the House passed stimulus bill, and, henceforth, he argues – and I’m putting it more vulgarly than E.J. ever would – the President should say “screw em,” and get on with the urgent task of expanding the welfare state.

There is confusion, in Washington and in the country at large, at the heart of this discordant and antique reality that remains lodged so firmly in the new era of hope and change.

Bipartisanship requires, irreducibly, a giving in and a standing by. That is the obvious nature of political compromise. Each side must bend their principles a little to accommodate those of the other side in exchange for preserving in whatever compromise policy results a respectable measure of those principles. It is tricky work that consumes enormous effort, to say the least. Naturally, given their possession of the White House and majorities in Congress, Democrats rightly expect to give in less and stand by their principles more than Republicans will, but give in to some extent they must if the President is, in fact, to employ bipartisan problem-solving in this our “winter of hardship,” as he aptly put it in his inaugural address.

Incivility has been one of the drearier qualities of political debate in the last twenty years or so, and it breeds personal animosities that bedevil even the sincerest efforts at political compromise. Both parties share in the blame for its occurrences, but it is not a partisan or institutional failing. Discourtesy never is. It is an entirely personal vice, which, when committed frequently by many individuals in a given profession, can falsely appear to be a flaw in that profession. The President’s genuine efforts to summon the better angels of our personal nature and his recognition that in this argumentative, heterogeneous society we are still bound closely together by the self-evident truths that are the basis of our political kinship are admirable. But civility is not now nor has it ever been a substitute for bipartisan policy accomplishment and the giving in and standing by it requires. It is simply good manners, and like good manners in any profession it smoothes the path to cooperation, but does not provide the hoped for product of that cooperation.

Republicans should never have been expected to endorse a free-for-all spending bill that substitutes the appropriators’ instinct for achieving occupational security at great public expense and Democrats’ faith in the virtues of big government for the most efficacious laws of free markets and free people. A truly bipartisan economic stimulus bill might have included more spending on public works than fiscal conservatives usually find advisable, given the inflation and higher interests rates it causes, in exchange for ensuring that the spending is, as some wise Democratic economists have urged, of reasonably short duration and actually stimulative. Or it might have permitted some of what Republicans judged nonsensical long term spending, and Democrats see as farsighted “investments in the future” in exchange for embracing the politically inconvenient but provably true conviction that reducing taxes on American businesses will do infinitely more good for the American people than handing them a check for $500.

Those are the kind of hard to swallow compromises that bipartisanship in deed and not just in name demands. Without it, we can surely still treat one another sociably, politely, respectfully as President Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress impose on the country a great many ineffectual or potentially ruinous fiscal policies. But button up your overcoat. This winter of hardship could last a while.

Submitted by ASO member: Mark Salter


Mr. Geofferson said...

Very interesting entry, particularly the angle on bipartisanship. I think there is a delicate balance between compromising for America and compromising your principles. I like the assertion that "Republicans should never have been expected to endorse a free-for-all spending bill that substitutes the appropriators’ instinct for achieving occupational security at great public expense and Democrats’ faith in the virtues of big government for the most efficacious laws of free markets and free people." Well said.

jasn said...

Honestly, i thought that part was a bit wordy, as is most of this...
A good way to have people understand you, is to speak in a way that can be easily understood. (relating this to music, most of the music for the past 60 years that has been on the top of the charts is very simple music and not jazz - because people can easily comprehend and thus identify with it -- it doesn't take a dictionary/thesaurus to be a word genious).

Overall though, i agree there's bi-partisan and then there's truly bi-partisan. We aren't likely to see "change in washington" but did anyone think we would? If you look at us, the american people we are a divided nation, and divided we fall, and we are falling. We came together on obama because we wanted change... such a simple word. But when it comes down to the conversation on how we should change, what we should change, and how to implement that change, the arguement starts, not just in washington but in the home, at the office and everywhere else.
IF, we could all just feel the same, something might get done. For better or for worse something would get done, accomplishments, maybe something for the history books. But we dont, and we won't because we're free to disagree and thus the people we vote in to go argue on our behalf will continue arguing for the party that gave them the money to be there and the cycle will continue. Maybe, take away parties and run on a completely independent platform and we could start to see some change in washington. If nothing else, it'd be interesting, and for certain a for better or worse situation.

Mr. Geofferson said...

For much of America, as evidenced by their voting pattern, it appeared that Obama would transcend old Washington politics, lofty and unrealistic expectations to be sure, but I wonder how will the American public respond to more politics as usual, the absence of change, and the absence of bipartisanship? As I wrote, I don't fault those who cannot vote for a stimulus bill if it is counter to their very platform, and so I don't expect a compromise on that issue. But then that certainly doesn't unite a divided nation.

To your other point, it is interesting to look at some politicians that ran on platforms and not parties, like Teddy Roosevelt trying to win the presidency with as a Progressive. Not that I was there, thank you history channel. TR felt more allegiance to his ideals than to his party. Very idealistic but ultimately led to an unsuccessful bid at the Presidency as he ended up splitting votes with Taft. And, while early USA had great need for political parties, mainly for education on the issues and community building it is interesting to ask how necessary political parties are in an age of greater media accessibility.

Anonymous said...

These new leaders of hope and change sure talk like Reagan but act like Marx. Agreed.

Anonymous said...

Thank God someone is calling it like it is.

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