Snake Oil and Unity08

Yesterday in Breaking Blue I posted a couple of video clips of Law & Order's Sam Waterston, one of him extolling the virtues of Unity08, an organization intent on backing a bipartisan presidential ticket in the 2008 election, the other of him pretending to sell robot insurance to the elderly during a fake Saturday Night Live commercial. In case the comparison were not clear enough -- and apparently it wasn't, because I have been asked by the organization to "share what [my] point is" -- please bear with me for a few moments as I meander through my editorial reasoning.

The stated goal of Unity08, according to its website, is to nominate, though a secure nationwide online primary, a ticket of one Republican and one Democrat or one headed by "an independent who presents a Unity Team from both parties." If I understand correctly, the assumption is that bipartisanship is in and of itself an end rather than a means, that America would be best served if the politicians could simply give up on their party allegiance and instead dedicate themselves to principle and compromise.

I will admit that there was a time when I might have believed in such an initiative. After all, my American history textbooks from my childhood spoke of a great period of bipartisan comity that spanned the greater part of the post-war period. But what these books did not explain -- and what makes such a bipartisanship near impossible today -- is that the fact that the relationship between the two parties during the post-war era was one in which the Democrats held what amounted to a permanent majority in Congress, particularly in the House, and as a result Republicans, predominantly blue-blooded Northern Republicans, knew they had to kowtow to the Democratic leadership if they wanted any say in Congress.

To expand, following the Democratic victory in the US House elections in 1954, there were never fewer than 232 Democrats in the House for the next 40 years (one more Democratic member than was elected last month, though that number is still subject to change). After the big Republican defeat in the 1958 midterm elections, there were never fewer than 242 Democrats in the House -- and that only occurred twice, following the wide presidential victories of Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. In short, Republicans in Congress were largely neutered during this period with little to no hope of ever exiting the minority (or so they thought).

But Congressional Republicans today, just like Congressional Democrats over the last dozen years, have not grown accustomed to permanent minority status. And as a result, they will not soon accede to the type of red-headed stepchild status they held during the "bipartisan" period following World War II, just as the Democrats have not and will not give in to the idea of permanent Republican control over Washington.

This is all a long way of saying that the type of bipartisanship we remember from the not-too-distant past is a remnant of a period not soon to be reproduced.

Yet I have gotten off point, to an extent. Even if I am wrong in my estimation that we are not going to see 1960s or 1980s style bipartisanship any time soon, my naysaying does not address whether the goal of bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake is a good idea.

On the surface, I would argue that the answer is yes. When one party -- either party -- becomes too entrenched in power, its members in government begin taking actions that place the continuation of power above the enactment of positive policies. As others have said, hubris sets in. Accordingly, it can be beneficial for either party to realize that they can lose at any time so that they set to the task of attracting the support of voters rather than manipulating the system to keep their majority status.

What's more, when people of one ideological stripe set to formulating policy amongst themselves without the input of others (particularly those with differing or even opposing views) there is great capacity for negative results. The wars in Iraq and Vietnam are but two examples of foreign policies gone awry when dissenting voices are not heeded.

Bipartisanship, however, is not a panacea. It is not even necessarily a solution to the problem of hubris. Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, the two examples of crowding out views that do not conform with leading opinion, occurred at times of bipartisanship, when majorities of both parties supported policies that would eventually bring great loss of life and resources. Bipartisanship did not stop these failures. In fact, one might argue that bipartisanship perpetuated them.

So when you look more closely at the concept of bipartisanship rather than merely thinking of it abstractly or looking at its surface level results you quickly notice that it is not a particularly enticing end, nor is it such an effective means. Instead, it is a nice-sounding nostrum, a snake oil to peddle to voters, if you will.

This all gets me to the point of my Breaking Blue post in a roundabout kind of way. In the SNL spoof I embedded in Breaking Blue, Sam Waterston plays on the concerns of the elderly by ginning up the ultimate straw man: dangerous robots that feed on the prescription drugs of the elderly and even threaten to kill old people. As a remedy, Waterston, who uses the cachet gained though his time on Law & Order to bring in older viewers, suggests a modestly-priced robot insurance knowing quite well that such a service is unnecessary.

In the Unity08 ad, Waterston also cashes in on his name recognition from Law & Order -- but this time for real. Here, he brings up a number of things Americans dislike about their political system, including the mudslinging, the high cost of elections and the avoidance of issues (a claim I would take issue with, but that's a rant for another day...). As a solution to these ills Waterston suggests bipartisanship, explaining that he has met with the founders of the movement and is convinced that they can rise above these problems and usher in a better type of politics. There is little explanation of how, exactly, they will achieve this, but that is no matter. People trust Jack McCoy so they will trust the actor who portrays him, Sam Waterston. They will buy Unity08, just as they bought robot insurance.

I don't begrudge Sam Waterston for standing up on behalf of something believes in, nor do I think that Unity08 is wrong for enlisting a spokesman who they believe to be effective. But at the same time I reserve the right to expose absurdity, whether through the pairing of a video intended to be serious with another poking fun at the heart of the first or through a rambling, though hopefully reasoned rant.

Tags: 2008, Bipartisanship, Unity08 (all tags)

Comments

20 Comments

Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Yesterday in Breaking Blue I posted a couple of video clips of Law & Order's Sam Waterston, one of him extolling the virtues of Unity08, an organization intent on backing a bipartisan presidential ticket in the 2008 election, the other of him pretending to sell robot insurance to the elderly during a fake Saturday Night Live commercial. In case the comparison were not clear enough -- and apparently it wasn't, because I have been asked by the organization to "share what [my] point is"

Seriously, you could've stopped right there. That's funny stuff ...

by BriVT 2006-12-06 12:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

I second that point. I also feel the need to point out how creepy this sounds. The unnamed "founders" of this "new movement" are going to "throw out backroom deals," and here's a bonafide film and TV star to tell you all about it...

by Josh Koenig 2006-12-06 05:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

I would also add that the biggest problem is the "avoidance of the pressing issues of the day."

This makes Obama look like a Edward R. Murrow in terms of being up-front and direct.

Tactically, I agree w/blogsawrm downthread; it seems like a poor calculation to try and drum up popular support among people who are turned off by passionate political convictions.

However I will say that their poll will be an interesting test. I predict a kind of circus, and I'll probably vote, but it's a bold thing to attempt at least.

by Josh Koenig 2006-12-06 05:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Well said.

Lets see, great examples of bipartisanship:

-Iraq.
-Bankruptcy Bill.
-NCLB.

Gee, these are working out great!  How many am I missing?  

Actually, since Joe is their guy, how about a list of Joe style bipartisanship.  That way we can throw in:

-Alito.
-Destructive Energy Policies.
-Annoying Senators who I really wished we beat.

by DanielUA 2006-12-06 12:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

I think that you and Unity08 are both misunderstanding why we are more partisan now. Partisanship is natural and rational in a two-party system. Go back to our first real Presidential election and you can find Jefferson's supporters accusing Adams of selling American virgins to the czar! What actually happened was that for a while we had an effectively three party system where two, the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats, chose to form a governing coalition. The whole thing was working in a more parliamentary way, which will inherently have less partisanship. Also, gerrymandering has created more ideologically cohesive districts. Calling for less partisan elected officials without totally reforming our electoral system is asking our representatives to stop representing us.

by CT student 2006-12-06 12:38PM | 0 recs
A Simpler Explanation

There is a spiritual virus that comes with role of chief prosecutor on Law & Order.  It caused Michael Moriarity to really go off the deep end, and declar himself a candidate for President, citing as his qualifications that he had seen the movie Dick, I think.

So, Sam Waterston apparently has only gotten a much milder strain.

Frankly, I think the series was much better off before they fell into the pattern of pairing Waterston with a succession of younger female assistants.  They should have shuffled him off a while ago, and let one of the stronger women take the lead.  Somehow, I don't think Elizabeth Rohm, for example, would do something this dumb.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-12-06 01:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Some form of non-partisan or bi-partisan politics was tried three times and failed in each incarnation.  Even George Washington was unable to keep the jeffersonian faction from splitting with the Adams/Hamilton faction.  John Quincy adams, a disguised Federalist, won the Presidency from Andrew jackson in a three way "non-partisan" race and Jackson not only screamed bloody hell he made sure partisan politics was re-instated.  Of course, Abe Lincoln"s National Unity ticket of 1864 with a "war Democrat" as VP led to impeachment and near conviction after Abe's assassination.

Washington, Jackson, and Lincoln couldn't pu;; it off.  Do you think Holy Joe and Mike Bloomberg can do it?

by David Kowalski 2006-12-06 01:48PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Has anyone been able to figure out what the purpose of Unity is? A vehicle for Bloomberg? A vehicle for McCain & Lieberman? A vehicle for someone else? To throw election to the GOP?

by robliberal 2006-12-06 01:59PM | 0 recs
Any or all of those goals...

for the purpose of assuring that a rising populist or progressive movement does not threaten the existing corporate welfare regime.  This Unity08 movement is corporate self-defense.

by Arthurkc 2006-12-06 02:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Any or all of those goals...

Absolutely.  This is corporate damage control.

by CranesAreFlying 2006-12-07 04:32PM | 0 recs
It's a feature, not a bug

I think that the ideological content of American politics, past and present, is a pretty tricky thing to get hold of.

It's certainly wrong to suggest that American parties have essentially been ideology-free office-winning machines.

(Or - a variant - that all mainstream parties have been agreed on a single ideology.)

The protective tariff was a genuine difference in ideology (varying in intensity and salience over time) between the parties for a century from the 1820s.

But most issues didn't split the parties like that, or did so only imperfectly or temporarily.

For instance, there were certainly clear party differences over the substance of the New Deal measures as they were enacted; but FDR believed in the balanced budget (he was no Keynesian) and Hoover was prepared to innovate as far as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

The New Deal more or less ended when the FLSA was enacted, whereupon the parties entered into a period of effective stalemate, with liberal Dems despairing of further advances and the Taftite GOP unable to roll back most of the existing New Deal laws (Taft-Hartley in the 80th was more or less the high water mark of their campaign to do so).

The upsurge of the Dem liberals during the 80th (most notably in the 1948 civil rights plank) got clear blue water between Northern Dems and the Taftites - but the Dewey faction and the Southern Dems (most of whom did not bolt) rather muddied it.

Coming up to date, there is a large amount of common ground between the parties - at least, between the Congressional parties: leaving aside the nutball Schiavo Circus-type nonsense, it's difficult to see what major issue clearly demonstrates an ideological difference between the parties (which is not also a difference between members of the same party).

In particular, there is no sign the Dem party will be offering from a putative 08 trifecta radical policies on health (odds on single payer, anyone?), education (scrapping the NCLB regime?) or anything else. There will be improvements made, certainly; but incrementally.

That's how the system is supposed to work, surely? The constitutional fail-safe is, nothing happens unless the elected branches, or a supermajority of the legislative branch, agree.

Upshot: we get bipartisanship willy nilly.

by skeptic06 2006-12-06 02:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

I got it.

It's hard to explain axioms and intuitively obvious stuff.

Unity08 is snake oil, and that's about all that needs to be said. You could say it's just going to be a new brand of corporate neoconservatism without all the social crap, but snake oil was good enough.

by msnook 2006-12-06 02:44PM | 0 recs
Yes, But...

What kind of snake???

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-12-06 05:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Who cares whether Unity08 doesn't get your point, they are fucking clueless about politics.

by Bob Brigham 2006-12-06 04:05PM | 0 recs
Yes, But...

This shows that their cluelessnss is not confined to politics.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-12-06 05:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08
I am not saying unity08 is good or anything as I haven't really paid attention to it.  But, I think, alot of people support that because of the excess partisanship of the gop and the politics of hate.  I think people are sick of it and both parties.  They are just looking for some solution and a way to do away with both parties.
people just feel neither addresses or cares about the people and the country.  Just money.  and power.  They are unhappy and are looking for a new something.  anything.
In the early 30s this was how people felt as well.  The little guy felt powerless and that those in Washington did not care.  After FDR came many felt something would happen.  But, others still felt wary and kept looking.  I think we as a country, are at that place again.
by vwcat 2006-12-06 05:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

Uh-huh. And so the "little guy" is gonna turn to big-money corporate interests and away from all that tacky partisanship? Please.

What, pray tell, is the "little guy" looking for that neither of the parties is offering?

Health care? Job security? Better working conditions? Better wages? Cleaner air and water?
Because there is one party that features actual living breathing politicians who stand for those things, and one that doesn't. Not all of them and not enough of the time, right now, but we're getting there. However, the idea that we could address these issues by "do[ing] away with both parties" is just silly.

by jkdism 2006-12-06 06:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

People are sick of the GOP, so they want to get rid of both parties? Isn't there a step missing there?

by KCinDC 2006-12-07 04:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Snake Oil and Unity08

It has worked well with Schweitzer/ Bollinger; I think that it has less to do with party than division of labor based on personality types so that everything gets done really well almost all the time.  

Somebody here was pushing the Unity 08 thing with a Romney/Lieberman ticket.  these comment threads are too polite for me to say any more.

by grannyinsanity 2006-12-06 09:34PM | 0 recs
Sam Waterston's endorsement makes U08 sound 1000x

better.  Too bad 1000 x 0 still equals 0.

by Terryus 2006-12-07 07:15AM | 0 recs

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