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Two Cheers for Bipartisanship

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By using the "recess appointment" process to install Richard Corday as the first director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama has seemingly reaffirmed the end of his wishful working for bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Coupled with his recent speech given at the site of Teddy Roosevelt's historic commitment to the "Square Deal," perhaps we are finally seeing the end of his humiliating and fruitless courtship of Republican partners. To many Obama supporters, long yearning for him to act less like Mister Rogers and more like Vince Lombardi, this aggressive stance is coming just in the nick of time.

Although Americans would like to see a harmonious consensus emerge about how to rejuvenate our base of economic growth and job creation, to reform our healthcare system or to protect the planet from climate change, it's just not likely to happen. And, if we take the long view, that's probably okay.

It turns out that partisanship -- even or especially rabid partisanship -- seems to be the normative way that significant progress is achieved in the U.S. This process is not pretty to watch but, over the longer term, seems to have accounted for a fair amount of advancement. By contrast, times of seemingly harmonious consensus have concealed and sustained unthinking and unthinkable outrages against fellow citizens. A few examples will illustrate:

You'd think that our treasured Bill of Rights might have been the product of bipartisan consensus, but it wasn't. It became part of our Constitution only because a fierce band of partisans fought for it and eventually forced the grudging compliance of the majority who had been perfectly content to leave it out of the original Constitution.

The same was true, of course, for the abolition of slavery. The broad bipartisan consensus of Congress thought slavery was just fine. Lincoln and his highly partisan Republican party upset that comfy accommodation through relentless agitation. Later, in full control of Congress and the Executive branch, they embedded full equality in the Constitution over the bitter opposition of the Democrats and their feckless President Andrew Johnson.

Rambunctious and single-minded President Theodore Roosevelt busted all kinds of established bipartisan mindsets, wreaking havoc on monopolistic business trusts and removing massive tracts of land from exposure to commercial exploitation, creating national wilderness areas and parks that effectively "socialized" almost two hundred million acres of America.

And his cousin FDR further "socialized" the country, in the minds of those who vilified his every thought and action, by creating the New Deal and Social Security over perhaps the most ferocious opposition ever mounted in Washington.

Later, the Kennedy brothers' efforts to dismantle segregation not only eschewed bipartisan sentiment but even overrode their own party's prejudices, taking bold action that demolished official racism but also alienated and eventually destroyed their own Democratic party's historic base of support in the Deep South.

Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Hall of Shame features not only the support of slavery but post-Civil War segregation, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the rampages of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the launching of the clearly suspect war on Iraq which was endorsed by 29 Democrats and 48 Republicans.

Does this mean that bipartisanship is a bad thing? Of course not. Lincoln famously said that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." But the remodeling of a house -- its constant improvement to make it even more durable and satisfying for those who live there -- is inherently a disruptive process (as any who've lived through it will readily testify). The genius of a democracy is its willingness to put all the issues on the table right out in public, where the differing points of view can be seen, heard, and debated. Eventually, one point of view comes to prevail, and when our citizenry and a few courageous members of the "other party" are in their right minds, that prevailing point of view usually improves our common dwelling place.

This often-painful process is a kind of "inertial guidance system" of the sort used to launch a rocket to Mars. Rather than take a straight aim and hope for the best, inertial guidance systems consist of a relentless chain of tacks back and forth, correcting and counter-correcting the pathway to ensure eventual success. In 2005, many Democrats felt both rage and despair that Carl Rove's reputed campaign to create "a permanent Republican majority" was succeeding and was indeed unstoppable. A year later, Democrats controlled Congress.

Today, many Democrats and independents yearn to see President Obama step up fearlessly and relentlessly to fulfill the hope of a more equable America. They trust that the clarity and rightness of his aim to restore fairness in America will eventually carry the day. All along they have heard him speak softly of these hopes. Now it remains to be seen if he will continue to wield the big stick to achieve them.


[This column draws on the work of historian Sam Haselby, for which the author is grateful.]