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Derek Shearer

Derek Shearer

Posted: February 7, 2008 06:58 PM

Why Bipartisanship Is A False Hope

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.

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