The theme of Barack Obama’s first six weeks might well be “bipartisanship.” Obama is sometimes praised as bipartisan while on other occasions treated as a typical partisan. Republicans claim that House Democrats crammed a bloated stimulus through the House. The media concur and add that Republican resentfulness will result in future partisan gridlock.
There are several moral and historical issues tangled up in this word.
At least in media hands, bipartisanship isn’t required of both parties. Most media had no qualms about President Bush’s monomaniacal agenda. After an election in which a plurality of Americans voted for another candidate, Bush claimed a mandate. He advocated extraordinary tax cuts for the superwealthy, invaded and occupied a sovereign nation in defiance of international law, and nominated two ultraconservative Supreme Court justices. These actions were taken in defiance of many critics and will constrain federal policy for a generation. Yet the media — and even most Democrats — seldom denounced him as partisan.
Obama received large popular and electoral pluralities on a progressive economic agenda that Republicans denounced as socialist. He proposed a modest stimulus package that included substantial tax breaks for businesses. Disappointing even some business supporters with its small size and supporters with its ineffective business breaks, he presented his package as open to Republican input. Most Republicans still steadfastly resisted. Thanks to Senate rules that give minorities virtual veto power, a few so-called moderates gained the leverage to scale down the measure further.
There are some lessons from this saga. Bipartisanship on the part of the minority party is neither necessary nor likely when that party enjoys virtual veto power. The “gridlock” in Congress that many citizens abhor is a function of the filibuster, a relic of an earlier age most infamous for its role in defense of segregation.
Some liberals also relied on the filibuster to try to derail Bush judicial appointments, though without success. Ultimately neither filibusters nor unelected Supreme Courts can be counted on to advance economic justice or protect and broaden personal rights. Both have often sustained special privilege and minority tyranny. In the long run, progressives must challenge the role that an appointed-for-life judiciary plays in basic policy issues. As during the New Deal, an unelected bench and archaic legislative rules can plunge an economy and a democracy to near collapse.
If democracy and individual rights are to survive let alone thrive, they will require a political movement on two related fronts: 1) taming private economic power and market instability; and 2) countering the racist, sexist, and xenophobic currents that impede constructive politics or are intensified by crisis. Such a movement must promote broader economic opportunity, encourage policy experiments, and be open to new cultural currents.
The right bipartisanship can advance these goals. The majority should listen to objections and be open to suggestions it can live with. The best bipartisanship also requires respect for private life. Attacks on President Clinton’s sexual relations or Newt Gingrich’s tangled divorce go beyond the bounds of political contestation. Whatever one may say of the misdeeds, their consequences pale in comparison to the policy legacy of the last few years. (Maine Republicans merit credit for steering clear of the demonizing excesses of their D.C. colleagues.)
Finally, the best bipartisanship owes opponents the rare gift of intellectual honesty. That includes acknowledging gaps in one’s own knowledge and fundamental assumptions one cannot prove fully even as one highlights comparable limits in opponents reasoning and asks them to recognize these.
But eventually choices must be made. Minorities must eschew anti-democratic roadblocks and guarantee the right to timely votes. When a majority implements its agenda, as it did under FDR, citizens can then assess its effects and hold political leaders accountable. Compromise for the sake of compromise deprives citizens of political choices and makes politicians unaccountable, factors that surely contribute to disgust with politics.
America fails this test of bipartisanship, to its great peril. Obama should stick more persistently to core principles and push for his best possible bargain. More basically, the best bipartisanship suffers in the face of rules that encourage minority obstruction. A culture and media that emphasize personal attacks, favor a corporate status quo and devalue respectful debate, economic experiments, and cultural exploration exacerbate the problem.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor.