Spare us the bipartisanship
by John Russonello, Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 10:58:37 AM EST
(Cross-posted from Think it Through)
When someone calls for bipartisanship, I immediately wonder: Is the person not able to argue for the idea on its own merits? Bipartisanship has come to mean putting aside your political convictions, if you have any. This usually leads to disastrous results.
- Bipartisanship kick-started the war in Iraq. So strong was the call for bipartisanship that Democratic and Republican Senators were willing to ignore the report from the United Nations weapons inspector who reported that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The Senate voted a lop-sided 77 to 23 to give President Bush the green light for an unnecessary war. This was not unlike the bipartisan Senate support - only 2 nay votes -- for the Tonkin Gulf resolution President Johnson used to send Americans to die in another lost cause.
- Bipartisanship produced the Patriot Act, which the Senate passed 98 to 1 shortly after 9/11. Members of both parties admitted they did not read the act they voted on, even though they were warned it took away civil liberties. The need to show bipartisanship overtook their responsibility to uphold the Constitution, protect the rights of their constituents, or even the duty to know what they were enacting.
- Bipartisanship became an alibi for Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House intelligence committees, and the leaders of each party, who remained silent for four years even though they knew the president was authorizing illegal wiretapping of American citizens. When the New York Times uncovered the government eavesdropping without a warrant, the Democrats (Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, and Harry Reid) who had known all along about the surveillance on American citizens feigned outrage -- a bit like the Vichy general in the film Casablanca who is "shocked" that there is gambling going on in the casino. In Washington, this type of behavior is excused because it is done in the interests of bipartisanship. It reminds me of the words of the late comedian George Carlin, who said "bipartisanship usually means that a larger than usual deception is being carried out."
This page in the Republican handbook was practiced with gusto by President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft and many others in the Bush administration. The vice president, in particular, often accused any Democrat who disagreed with him as helping terrorists. After hearing these attacks for 8 years, Americans decided that the administration was a one-trick act. Eventually they got bored and annoyed with the act.
Possibly in reaction to the Bush years, the public embraced Obama's non-belligerent personal style. By being too cool to personally attack others, he gives people confidence that he can run the country better than those who relied on name-calling and fear-baiting to stay in power.
I'm not suggesting we can or should make politics overly polite. Nor do I have much hope that we can return to a time when members of both parties actually listened to each other and formed opinions based on Congressional debates. I can remember working on Capitol Hill when Democrats and Republicans would stop what they were doing to listen to Republican Barber Conable of New York talk about economic issues in the House chamber, or when senators of both parties would go to the Senate floor to listen to Senator Sam Nunn discuss military defense matters.
Those days may be gone. But it is not too late to agree that there are some strong differences between Democrats and Republicans, and to suggest that Democrats and Republicans debate the differences rather than call each other names.
Refusing to personally attack your opponents' motives is a step in the right direction, but insisting that Democrats and Republicans have to take the same position on issues in order to create anything of value is simply wrong.
Congress and the nation have reached most of our important milestones through tough partisan debates, not bipartisan sublimation of debate. Our civil rights laws, social programs, and decisions about America's international involvement have often taken years of serious disagreements and partisan votes before Congress formed a decision. Progress usually comes about by attracting some support from across the political aisle, but landmark votes are not always consensus votes.
President Obama should continue to include Republicans when inclusion serves his goals. But please spare us the angst over seeking bipartisanship for its own sake. The president and the Congress are better off as partisans, fighting for their ideas.
John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."