New York Times
During the stimulus debate, President Obama made several overtures to the Republicans, hoping to bring them on board with his plan, to little avail. Not one House Republican voted for the package, and only three moderate Republicans voted with the Democrats in the Senate.
Given that decidedly partisan outcome, should President Obama continue to aim for bipartisanship in carrying out his broader agenda?
Our Leaders, Surprise, Have Strong Views
Larry Sabato is director of the Center for Politics, and Robert Kent Gooch Professor and University Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
Americans love bipartisanship, and it’s easy to understand why. All of us were raised to believe that we should “play nice” and “disagree without being disagreeable.” Also, most of us are inherently suspicious of politics, parties and politicians. While more than 80 percent of Americans have some partisan identification with either the Democrats or the Republicans, just over a third have a strong attachment to one of the parties. The other two-thirds don’t like to be fenced in by a label.
And fairly or unfairly, people despise watching politicians squabble. The assumption is that they are doing so more out of arrogance, entitlement and ego than any real sense of the public good. I have heard hundreds of citizens ask why can’t the politicians just sit down, talk over their differences, and arrive at a reasonable compromise like adults?
If only it were that straightforward and effortless. The two major political parties have fundamental disagreements about a wide variety of economic, social, and foreign policy issues. They are supposed to have them. The men and women who represent the parties in Congress and the executive branch are not average individuals with unformed opinions on many topics, but rather strong partisans who have carefully thought out their world views for decades.
The American system does not lend itself to ‘national unity’ governments like those sometimes formed in parliamentary systems.
They got where they are because they were activists, motivated to make sacrifices of time and money for their principles. Most do not bend easily, and after all, the voters have elected them on the basis of their platforms and beliefs. Elections matter enormously in any democracy.
In addition, the American system does not lend itself to “national unity” governments like those sometimes formed in parliamentary systems — governments that combine the executive and legislative functions into a single dominant elective chamber. The theory that underpins a two-party system in a separation-of-powers arrangement like ours is that the parties turn their principles into practical choices on the great issues of the day.
The electorate considers those distinct options, and picks one at election time. Yes, sometimes one party wins the Presidency and the other party wins Congress — and either compromise or stalemate results. (Usually it is some of both.)
But in other elections, the people decide to put the same party in power in both elective branches. That is what happened in November 2008. The Democrats have a mandate to govern, and the Republicans have the job of suggesting alternatives and preparing to contest the next elections in 2010 and 2012 on the basis of their distinct ideas.
Every system is imperfect. Every system has flaws that reduce efficiency and effectiveness. But over time, the American system has proved itself. Civility and consultation are always welcome, and smart leaders use these courtesies to accomplish their goals. But two parties were not elected to govern in 2008, and it really is that simple.
Steamrolling the Opposition Won’t Work
Steven G. Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.
President Obama reached out in his campaign and in his transition to Republicans, and he said that bipartisanship in solving our problems would be a hall mark of the change he wanted to bring to America. The President’s desire for bipartisanship is to be applauded, and it stands in sharp contrast with the behavior of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who steamrolled over the Republicans in writing the stimulus bill.
Education and health care reform will need the bipartisan solution of free-market socialism.
I do not blame the president for Speaker Pelosi’s and Senator Reid’s behavior nor do I think it is what he wants to see repeated. We need bipartisanship in many areas, but let me mention two that especially stand out.
In education, we need to move toward a system where public schools are funded out of taxes collected statewide or federally rather than through highly unequal residential property taxes. We also need many, many more charter schools and vouchers for education. The bipartisan solution to our education problems is to reform both the way we fund public schools and the degree to which they compete.
The same thing applies for health care reform. We need to provide funding for private individuals who do not have and cannot afford health insurance to buy it on the private market. To do this, we need gradually to eliminate the tax deductability of employer-provided health care plans to fund health care tax credits. This will sever the current link between having a job and having health care. It will also lead to control of health care prices because upper income consumers of health care will watch their health care expenses more carefully if they have to pay for them with after tax income rather than with before tax employer provided benefits which are seen as being a freebie.
One bipartisan solution to education and health care policy is for government to, in effect, give all citizens an education or health care credit or voucher and then let them buy education or health care from the provider they like the most. This is the essence of free-market socialism, which is what I think President Obama wants.
Going Along With the G.O.P.
Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer, is a columnist at Salon.com and the author, most recently, of “Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.”
The long-standing Beltway cliché is that there is something inherently superior about “bipartisanship” and “centrism.” Those terms are such platitudes that they now lack any real meaning. But in their common usage, they typically designate whatever views happen to appeal to the base of the Republican Party and enough “conservative” Democrats to form a majority.
‘Bipartisanship’ has meant all Republicans joining a minority of Democrats to enact Republican policies.
Over the last eight years, virtually every new law hailed as a shining example of “bipartisanship” has involved all Republicans joining with a substantial minority of Democrats to provide majoritarian support. — i.e., it’s been a mechanism for enacting Republican policies.
A list of the most significant acts of “bipartisan” votes during the Bush presidency compellingly demonstrates how that term is typically employed. It’s a way of eliminating the few differences between the parties and forcing Democrats, even when they are in power, to continue to embrace Republican governing approaches.
In 2006, the Democrats ran on a platform of opposing — not embracing — the Republican agenda, and American voters handed them a resounding, even crushing, victory. In 2008, much the same thing happened: Democrats ran on platform of “change” from the Republican approach to governance — not replicating it — and resoundingly won again.
What possible reason is there, then, to argue that Democrats ought to adopt Republican ideas — regardless of what those ideas are — simply for the sake of “bipartisanship”? Americans elected Democrats to implement Democratic ideas and will hold Democrats responsible for the success or failure of their policies. Democrats should therefore use their majority power to carry out the polices that they think are the best ones for the country, not dilute those ideas and incorporate discredited Republican approaches in order to fulfill some vague bipartisan ideal.
Besides, Republicans have made clear that they consider themselves an opposition party. They don’t want to give President Obama and Democrats political cover by allowing policies to be depicted as the consensus of both parties. Republicans represent millions of Americans who disagree with the Democratic approach and it is more democratic of them to represent those views by operating as an opposition party.
Of course, no party has a monopoly on good ideas and there’s nothing wrong with compromising with the other party when doing so yields superior policies. But bipartisanship for its own sake elevates process over substance, and does nothing but further erode the very few genuine differences that still exist between the two parties.
Tough Issues Require Bipartisan Cover
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review.
Whether and how President Obama reaches out to Republicans depends on what he wants to accomplish. If his agenda centers on legislation that poses few political risks, then he can afford to pass bills on party-line votes. He would lose some of the aura of a president who wants to move past old divisions, but that aura will probably wane anyway as he comes to be seen more and more as an incumbent.
On issues like entitlement reform and global warming, congressional Democrats may not want to bear the political risks alone.
The stimulus bill was, as legislation goes, low-risk. It has been a long time since anybody has lost a congressional or presidential election for spending or cutting taxes too much. But there are signs that Mr. Obama wants to move in areas that pose greater political risks, and it is hard to imagine that congressional Democrats will want to bear those risks alone.
Health-care reform would almost certainly involve threatening some Americans’ existing arrangements. Entitlement reform would involve either raising taxes, cutting future benefits, or both. Action on global warming could raise energy prices. Tax reform would anger many groups. Would Obama be able to keep his party unified on these issues? If not, he will need to have more than a handful of Republicans on his side. And to get the requisite numbers, he will have to let Republicans have meaningful input in the legislation.
In my view, President Obama could do himself and the country a lot of good by moving early on a bipartisan reform of Social Security. In deciding how much to reach out to Republicans, he will not merely be making a stylistic or tactical choice. He will be figuring out what kind of president he wants to be.
An Empty Fantasy
, a senior editor at National Review, is the author of “George Washington on Leadership” and the forthcoming “Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.”
Political parties are the bastard children of the founding fathers. They hoped to have a non-partisan political order: George Washington attacked parties in his Farewell Address, and James Madison wrote of them in the Federalist Papers as factions, political bacilli. Yet all the founders quickly involved themselves in the first American party system, Federalists vs. Republicans (ancestor of today’s Democrats).
Nostalgia for prelapsarian non-partisan innocence is always with us, though. In moments of great stress it can take concrete form. Franklin Roosevelt picked two Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to be Secretaries of War and the Navy in 1940, in the early days of World War II. Lincoln tapped the Unionist Democrat Andrew Johnson to be his running mate when he ran for re-election in 1864. Stimson and Knox performed well; Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s murder, was a catastrophe.
Short of a world war or a civil war, bipartisanship is an empty fantasy. Parties exist for reasons — they express clashing ideas and interests in society. I imagine President Obama knew this all along. He won the White House, and the Democrats control both houses of Congress. They asked for these jobs; let’s see their stuff.