Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wherefore bipartisanship?

In just a few short hours, Obama will address both houses of Congress to deliver a speech that will probably make me wish my hockey game had been scheduled earlier, so that I'd have an excuse not to listen to presidential drivel.

Not counting the media and public at large, his audience can be divided in at least two easy ways. One is Senate vs House of Representatives, and I've recently written how that could be made into a useful distinction. The other, more obvious division, is between Republicans and Democrats.

I'm sure Obama will pay lots of lip service to bipartisanship, and I'm equally sure that nobody — not the Republicans, Democrats, media or public — will believe it. We've seen that movie before. But a recent comment on NPR made me wonder why we care so much about bipartisanship, anyway.

A couple weeks ago, a guest on WBUR's Here and Now made an intersting point about the recent Congressional hearings about the financial crisis:

I'm torn about that "ten people having questions" thing. Because it's clearly a smart bunch of people on the committee, and the fact that they have different viewpoints isn't necessarily a bad thing; but the hearings this week have caused me to go back and read the transcripts of the Pujo and Pakora [financial] hearings [of 1912 and 1932, respectively] ... it was basically one person asking the vast majority of questions, and it was almost handled like a prosecution. And the witnesses kept having to come back day after day until they'd satisfied the prosecutor.

The difficulty here is if it stays this sort of "oh, we must be bipartisan, and we must let everyone ask questions," then you miss that opportunity to really go in depth and really figure out what was going on in certain aspects of the financial system over the past couple years.

—Justin Fox, editor at large at Time magazine

There's a lot to be said for using democracy to decide who has power, and then more or less leaving that government to govern how it see fits. Fox lays out the benefits of that approach, and the example goes beyond just Congressional hearings. From drafting legislative goals to penning the specifics of each law, too many chefs can ruin the stew.

To some degree, that's the point of our partisan system. The idea is that by slowing down the process and forcing people to average out their ideologies, we manage to avoid the bad extremes (even if it's at the cost of avoiding the good extremes, too). The problem is that, as the early years of the Bush administration demonstrated, extremes are actually still very much reachable. Meanwhile, every bill ends up hacked, watered down and compromised.

I've long been a huge advocate of bipartisanship, but Fox's point made me realize that the real goal isn't bipartisanship for its own sake; it's moderate and intelligent policy decisions. We can achieve those with 50%+1 votes in the legislature, even when those votes are strictly along party lines, if our legislators are smart and open-minded.

The majority party should be willing — even eager — to seize on the minority's best ideas and implement them, taking all the credit. The minority party should be equally vigilant in identifying which of the majority party's ideas are good, and accepting them. That will do a lot more good for the country than continuing our system of polarized and closed-minded lawmakers, with the occasional bone thrown to the opposition for the sake of 60 votes.

So tonight, Obama shouldn't promise to get the Republicans on board with his health care. He should rile up the Democrats with an inspiring, exhaustive plan that gives liberals everything they want — and also steals the Republicans' best ideas, including tort reform. And the legislature should argue it, yell about it, and pass it without filibuster.


  1. It seems to me that ”bipartisanship” has become a word void of meaning, for the reasons you specify.

    The American culture loves sports. There are countless movies about the underdog team who made it big – the climax of these movies typically has loud and fascistic soundtrack to elevate the viewer’s soul. Macho CEOs use sport metaphors all the time. The essence of these metaphors is: be a good team player because our game against the other team is zero-sum.

    Since sport metaphors are so prevalent, my guess is that they affect the phenomenon known as partisanship. The zero-sum mentality is reinforced by disciplinary actions taken by the party leaders against people who are not “team players”, and, not unlike sport events, the pundits help restore order by punishing the independent mind.

    I think that Obama’s great speech against the zero-sum mentality was a bit ill-timed – it would have been better if he preached to a spirit of cooperation before losing the super-majority. Still, the last one-third or the speech was excellent. Obama so far has a mediocre record of following up with actions on his excellent oratory, so we’ll see.

  2. I wonder if it was merely ill-timed — or if took losing his alleged supermajority[1] for him to realize the follies of a zero-sum approach.

    And, fair's fair: I'm calling for an end to bipartisanship (as we currently define it, in the adversarial political environment) at a time when "my" party can't get anything done, partially because of its attempts to be bipartisan. The real test of my convictions will come when the GOP comes into power, and I have to grind my teeth and let them do what they want to do without calling for a filibuster.

    I'm pretty confident I'll pass the test, but we can't know for sure until it happens.

    [1] The Democratic party has such lousy party discipline that 60 Democrats (59+Lieberman, actually) isn't actually a supermajority.

  3. I watched Obama two days after the State of the Union Address, standing in front of the Republicans and holding a conversation. It was quite interesting, albeit embarrassing at times. When I watched it, I realized what was disturbing me in his Union Address, as well as in the exchange with the Republicans.

    Obama is preaching bipartisanship, which is nice and dandy. But he addresses his audience both as a President and as a head of the Democratic party. I think that this is his big mistake, even if in doing so he follows in the footsteps of some of his predecessors. He should never refer to Republicans as “you” (as opposed to “us”). He should detach himself from his party and act as the president (correct that – President) of everybody. He should eliminate the kvetzing about “Clinton was great, but I inherited a mess” which translates into “Democrats are better than Republcans”. When he discusses politicians with selfish short-term horizons, he should not sort them based which side of the aisle they sit. He should scorn them or praise them based on their care for the American cause. Yes, that would also imply scorning Nancy Pelosi, for example. I guess it requires more guts than making a comment about the Supreme Court (mostly because he was facing the Judges, but had Pelosi at his unguarded back).

  4. Scott Brown is doing something in the right direction:

    WASHINGTON – Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown may have crushed Democrats' spirits in winning a special election last month, but he's also helped revive them by providing critical momentum to advance a bipartisan jobs bill that had become entangled in familiar partisan wrangling.


    That's just what happened Monday, when Brown, along with Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted to defeat a filibuster led by far more conservative GOP leaders.