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Bipartisan Is Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Win

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Headlined to H2 2/27/10

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Wouldn't it be great if American government could finally operate in a more bipartisan fashion?

No, as a matter of fact, it wouldn't.

Bipartisanship is all the rage now, for three reasons, each of which is as abysmal as it is absurd.

The first is that the Republicans, having given the country a wee taste of their politics these last years and decades, were shown to the exit door by the American electorate in two election cycles in a row. Now, completely bereft of power except by means of every reprehensible delaying and blocking tactic imaginable, the Great Obstructionist Party is whining at every opportunity about the need for bipartisanship. But this is an almost entirely foreign concept for them, since, when they had control of the government, they simply rammed their agenda down the throats of everyone on the horizon, including historic allies of the United States, and even as with Bush's prescription drug bill members of their own party in Congress. If they were running over the French and Germans and even Congressional Republicans, needless to say they didn't hesitate to make frequent road-kill of Democrats, without so much as a fleeting glance in their rearview mirrors.

Thus, all the newfangled talk about bipartisanship is simply another in a series of ploys which seek to cripple the Democrats from doing what one would normally expect a party to do once it had won control of the government. Namely, govern.

But, of course, the Democrats seem nearly as adamant as Republicans about making sure that nothing happens in Washington, which is the second reason you hear all this crap about bipartisanship, especially from President Teddy Bear and his White House. Part of that is quite personal, I suspect. If you look at Obama's psychological makeup, it seems pretty evident to me that he has some sort of deep-seated need to be the conciliator in the room. But part of it is also programmatically convenient. Neither Obama nor the supposed flaming Bolsheviks in Congress are remotely serious about pushing a progressive agenda. The attempt at bipartisanship allows them to avoid doing so, and to then turn to their base with the absurd argument that, "Sorry, but gosh, our hands were tied". As if owning the presidency and three-fifths of both houses of Congress wasn't enough to do the job. As if George W. Bush didn't get nearly everything he wanted from Congress, without any of the advantages Obama has.


The third reason you hear a lot about bipartisanship is because the public is dumb enough to embrace it. And, this is really dumb, if you think about it. Why should anyone care about whether or not a legislative proposal has the support of both parties? Do we care whether it comes gift-wrapped with a bow? Do we care whether the pope is also on board? Do we care whether it is similar to what they do in Botswana? No, we do not. And we should not. The only thing that really matters about any given piece of legislation is whether or not it is good policy. Apart from my own representatives, who will soon be asking me for my vote to help them keep their jobs, I couldn't care less how the bill was adopted or rejected. As a citizen, I don't have any interest whatsoever whether it was done by this coalition or that one, by a strict party-line vote or a chaotic aisle-crossing mash-up, by unanimity or by the barest of threads. None of that will affect my life. What is really important is simple: The bill either becomes law or it doesn't, and it's either good for the country or it isn't.

What makes this clamoring for bipartisanship especially inane is that it is a part of a constellation of vague public preferences that not only make no sense, but are often mutually exclusive of one another. Americans want their government to go to work for them! Yes, except when they want their government to stay out of their lives and do nothing! Americans want change! Except when they want bipartisanship that guarantees no change! Americans want their government to do less! Except when they are complaining about all the terrible gridlock in Washington! The short version of the story is that the people of this country don't exactly know what they want, except that, as good Americans, they of course want everything. Which, unfortunately, includes bipartisanship.

But there is zero inherent value to bipartisanship and potentially a lot to be lost, as is the case under present circumstances. It only takes a little imagination to see this (and not really even that, given the nature of today's certifiably insane GOP). If the American Nazi Party was the second party in the system, would it be better for a centrist first party to be bipartisan? Would the legislation produced be healthier for the country that way? Maybe we could get some cozy compromise that only resulted in half a genocide, eh? Maybe we would only try to take over the northern hemisphere, instead of the whole planet. Wouldn't those be grand and lovely bipartisan compromises?

Of course, the Republicans aren't Nazis. Though there are certain days where you do kinda wonder. Meanwhile, though, for that matter the Democrats aren't really Democrats either. At least, that is, they are not a party that either Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt would anymore recognize. But the principle is the same. What is to be gained by Democrats pretending for the moment that Democrats actually had some legislation to offer that would benefit the country in any meaningful way what is to be gained by Democrats from seeking bipartisanship?

The question is a valid one, even if we set aside the most obvious of political facts about contemporary American politics, which is that the Republican Party of No hasn't the slightest interest in cooperating with the Democrats in any fashion whatever. Indeed, it is not a stretch or a joke to say that Republicans would not cooperate with Democrats even if the Democrats took up the Republican agenda wholesale. As Obama himself pointed out in one of his more lucid moments, seven Republicans recently voted against a bill that they had previously cosponsored themselves, merely because the Democratic president endorsed the idea. (Maybe Obama's new strategy should be to come out in favor of Republicans winning the next election. Then GOP candidates would have to choose between renouncing their own victory, on the one hand, or siding with the hated president, on the other. Heck, by the look of Obama's first year, maybe that actually has been his strategy!)

Obama is now making some noises about ditching the whole Quest for the Bipartisan Holy Grail, but then Obama is real good at making noises, but real lousy at actually doing things. What I've never quite understood is why he continues on his political suicide mission. The whole premise of representative government is based on harnessing the ego and pretensions of the men who would be king and channeling that self-interest into the public interest by allowing voters to decide how congruent it is with their own aspirations and preferences. It assumes that people who want to be president or senator actually want to be president or senator, and that they will therefore do what the voters want them to do.

Of course, we live in an era when the real constituents of government officials are the ones who deliver the modern equivalent of paper sacks full of cash. And, to a certain extent, "twas ever thus. But despite the overwhelming power of special interests, that model really only flies during "normal times', and these are not normal times. The public's anger and exasperation grows in direct proportion to the proliferation of the economic and other national crises, and inversely against the mounting failures of their so-called representatives to actually legislate, let alone represent. I expect that 2010 and 2012 will mark the third and fourth iterations in a row of election cycles profoundly marked by an anti-incumbent tsunami, and that there likely will be others after that, especially after Republicans seize power and proceed to utterly fail in effective problem-solving. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, is now just about to join a whole bunch of other Democrats in getting served up his pink slip. Of course, Ol' Harry will, er, land on his feet, so to speak, with a fat multi-million dollar lobbyist gig or six. Still, this turn of events is clearly not his first choice, and it's gotta sting a bit. So will Nancy Pelosi's demotion to minority leader in the House. So will Barack Obama's one-term failed presidency.

And so should they. What did the Dead sing? "If you plant ice, you're gonna harvest wind"? Bipartisanship, for its own sake, is very a cold gale indeed. In our particular moment, it actually means doing absolutely nothing. And doing nothing today means continuing to serve the interests of the plutocracy, even while economic, fiscal, environmental, foreign policy and other conditions are collectively stomping on the accelerator of the public's hearse as it careers pell-mell down the Highway to Hell. Bitchen idea that bipartisan inertia in the face of crisis, eh? Let's have more of that.

It would be one thing if today's Republican Party was populated by actual human beings. Or if, on the other hand, Obama was just playing them for suckers, letting them establish themselves as the Party of No at a time when the public desperately wants Yes, and then letting them hoist themselves far higher up on their own petard than he could have done without their help. But neither of those appear to be the case. The Eisenhower Republican is no longer any more viable than is Cro Magnon Man or floppy disks. That leaves the Mitch McConnells of this world to take their place, and the only thing more despicable than a Mitch McConnell is the a**hole who would seek to do deals with a Mitch McConnell especially when he doesn't have to leaving the rest of us stuck with the consequences. And as for the notion of Obama the strategic genius, playing chess while the rest of us are playing checkers, I just have to laugh that some die-hard Democrats are still clinging to that last-ditch Hail Mary pass. The only thing Barack the rag doll has to show for one year in office is plummeting poll ratings and a signature health care bill that was so badly managed that it will actually cost him votes if it passes, which still seems unlikely anyhow. I'd say Obama is playing tiddlywinks while the rest of us are playing checkers. Or maybe he's just playing with himself. We know that the last DINO in the White House did just that, literally and figuratively.

But the fallacy of the bipartisan god runs even deeper. One could make a pretty good argument that bipartisanship is not to be desired under most any normal circumstances. The reason for this has to do with another of the pillars of democratic theory, this one being the idea of responsible government. In a real democracy, people are supposed to have a real choice. That means political parties with distinguishably different programs (else why have more than one party, anyhow?). And that means that one of them governs (is responsible) at any given time, and the other stands in opposition, offering an alternative vision. At the end of the day, the people get to decide how they like the way things are going, and then vote accordingly. If it's good, you keep the bums you have. If it ain't, you hire new bums.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
 
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