THE BLOG

Why Bipartisanship Is A False Hope

02/07/2008 06:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My friend Bruce Stokes, national economic correspondent for the National Journal, and co-author of America Against The World with pollster Andrew Kohut, has written an interesting and informative column in Thursday's Congress Daily titled, "The Myth of Bipartisanship." Stokes' analysis of data on the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats and even Republicans and Independents on major economic and political issues illustrates the importance of the Democratic candidate having a clear reform program--and the understanding that such a program will have to be advocated for and fought for politically in the country and in the next Congress.

There is similar polling data on foreign policy issues, with an even wider gap on such matters as the Iraq War and the conduct of the War on Terror. The Republican party has made it clear since Bill Clinton's election that they have no interest in a bipartisan foreign policy either. One might wish it otherwise, but this is the political terrain on which the national election will be fought in the fall.

I commend Bruce's article below to you, and to your friends who are a mesmerized by talk of cross party unity from either McCain or Obama.

BALANCE OF PAYMENTS

An Illusory Ideal

As Americans, we, like many people, tell ourselves stories

about who we are and what we believe. Too often these national

myths are self-delusional.

A case in point is voters' avowed desire for bipartisanship

in dealing with pressing national problems, which has become a

theme of the presidential campaign.

Americans tell pollsters and journalists that they are sick

of the partisan divide in Washington and want a candidate who

can reach across the aisle to get things done.

But recent polling on specific issues -- jobs, health care

and global warming -- suggests that Americans can't even agree

on what are the major challenges facing the nation, let alone

what to do about them.

Voters seem to want compromise on their own terms: "I win;

you lose."

Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., tout

their ability to tap into the electorate's hunger for

bipartisanship. Each claims he can provide the inspiration and

leadership needed to sooth partisan bickering. But surveys show

such aspirations are likely to be frustrated by voters' stark

differences over priorities. For, while the American public

fancies itself bipartisan, it remains deeply partisan.

Bipartisanship has an iconic place in U.S. history.

In his farewell address upon leaving the presidency, George

Washington warned his fellow Americans against partisanship in

domestic politics and called on them to serve the common good.

Today, many Americans apparently truly believe that

bipartisan government would be the best government.

Just as the presidential campaign was getting under way last

year, more than half of Democrats and more than three-quarters

of independent voters said they wanted a candidate for president

who could bridge partisan divides, according to a Los Angeles

Times/Bloomberg national survey conducted June 7-10, among 1,183

adults. The survey had a 3-point error margin.

This desire for a leader who can rise above the political

fray is undoubtedly a reassuring self-image for Americans at a

time of widespread public pessimism about the future, deep

regrets about past political choices and the conduct of U.S.

foreign policy and a troubling realization of the profound

anti-Americanism around the world.

And, in the face of a looming recession, both Democrats and

Republicans do agree that efforts to strengthen the economy

should be a priority, according to a recent Pew Research Center

survey of 1,515 adults. The survey was conducted Jan. 9-13 and

has a 3-point error margin.

Just a year ago there was a 12-point partisan divide on this

issue. And, Americans have narrowed their differences -- from a

19-point gap in 2007 to a 6-point gap -- on the importance of

dealing with energy problems.

But scratch a little deeper and voters are even more divided

than ever about specific economic challenges.

Amid lagging job creation over the last few months, Democrats

apparently feel the pain more than Republicans.

Last year's 28-point-difference between Democrats and

Republicans on the importance of improving the job situation has

grown to 33 points, with Democrats showing more anxiety about

unemployment.

Similarly, the 19-point partisan gap in dealing with problems

of the poor and the needy has grown to 27 points, with Democrats

again more concerned than the GOP.

On other hot button issues there is similar disagreement.

Democrats have long worried more than Republicans about

providing health insurance for the uninsured. But that partisan

difference is 38 points, up from 28 points in 2007.

The GOP has always accorded less importance to dealing with

global warming. But now, despite all the recent evidence that

the climate might be changing, partisan differences over whether

this should be a national priority have grown from 25 points to

35 points.

Much of this deepening partisanship on specific issues must

be laid at the doorstep of GOP voters, who not only have growing

differences with Democrats, but also have parted ways with

independents, according to the Pew data.

On giving priority to the problems of the poor, the gap

between Democrats' attitudes and independents' views has shrunk

from 21 points to 10 points in the last year.

Meanwhile, the difference between GOP sentiments and those of

independents has actually grown from 2 points to 17 points.

Similarly, on health care, the gap between views held by

Democrats and independents has shrunk from 18 points in 2007 to

7 points today.

At the same time, the difference between attitudes of

Republicans and independents has grown from 8 points to 31

points.

Finally, on giving priority to dealing with global warming,

the differences between Democrats and independents remain

largely unchanged since last year. But the gap between

Republicans and independents has grown from 17 points to 26

points.

The public's support for bipartisanship clearly exists in the

abstract.

And, undoubtedly, this avowed willingness to put the good of

the country before personal political concerns makes voters feel

good about themselves. But that self-image is delusional.

Americans remain sharply divided about the nation's major

economic challenges, let alone what to do about them. They are

bipartisan in theory, but partisan in practice. By Bruce

Stokes