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Bipartisanship Gone Wrong: A Cautionary Tale for the Next Administration

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Despite the recent electoral results instituting a new era of unified party control in Washington, bipartisanship is in the air. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Valerie Jarrett a long-time advisor to President-elect Obama and co-chair of his transition team reminded us that "throughout the campaign, President-elect Obama has talked about the importance of bipartisanship." And Jarrett expressed confidence that "the administration will include people from all perspectives."

Yet, the segment following Jarrett's Meet the Press debut offered a more somber prognosis for bipartisanship. Congressman Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) discussed a range of policy priorities facing the next Congress. The Congressmen expressed a shared commitment to moving forward "common ground" agenda items and agreed on many of the problems we face. But when discussion turned to the specific policy solutions, partisan differences were more prevalent. Ironically, this was most evident when discussion turned to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) - a program initially considered a case of bipartisan policymaking at its best.

Yes, SCHIP was lauded as a bipartisan program when enacted in 1998. And it is true that leaders from both parties were motivated by a shared commitment to do something to address the problem of uninsured children in America. However, the agreement stopped there. When developing SCHIP, many Democrats saw a window of opportunity for advancing part of the failed Clinton health care proposal. In contrast, many Republicans continued to favor a market-based solution with a limited role for government provision of health care.

Recognizing the ability of ideological disagreement such as these to cripple policy proposals, SCHIP proponents circumvented these ideological fault lines through use of a creative policy design in which most contentious issues were passed on to state policymakers to decide. This left federal policymakers in position to take action on this pressing problem of uninsured children without having to come to consensus on what should actually be done. Most people labeled this a bipartisan policy success. But, this image was tarnished when the last Congress failed to reauthorize the program for another decade amid partisan disagreement.

This case of partisanship "gone wrong" provides a cautionary tale for the next administration, not to extinguish the hope for bipartisan policymaking, but to illustrate the consequences of bipartisanship "done wrong."

The bipartisan agreement that created SCHIP did not represent true bipartisan compromise, but instead a crafted political strategy that succeeded by sweeping contentious issues under the rug. This form of bipartisanship provides only a short-term fix. Therefore, it was not surprising that the sticking points in last year's SCHIP reauthorization debate echoed earlier questions over SCHIP's scope, limits, and intent.

True bipartisanship requires more than an avoidance of ideological landmines. It calls for engaging in direct debate with those whom you disagree regarding the goals, purposes, and efficacy of alternative policy solutions.

Of course, this is an incredibly risky strategy. Debate alone does not generate consensus. In fact, it is more likely to draw even brighter lines between each side and result in increased conflict. Yet, it is still worth it.

By confronting points of disagreement rather than legislating around them, we are forced to admit that our specific hopes for or fears of government are not shared by all Americans. We must acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative visions for how government should engage in our lives. Once this diversity is recognized, policy proposals that simply mask key ideological differences will be more easily dismissed as short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. And without these easy outs to turn to, a truer bipartisan search for common ground can commence.

While many will be watching the next administration to see if bipartisanship actually emerges, I am more interested in the form any bipartisanship takes. It is my hope that the Obama administration eschews the typical form of crafted bipartisanship characterized by short-term compromises that gloss over ideological differences.

Instead, I urge the new administration to undertake the slower, harder, and more contentious form of bipartisanship that requires facing our points of disagreement. The compromises and consensus that emerge from this process - no matter how small a step forward - will provide a more stable foundation for later policy debates, bipartisan efforts, and workable solutions to the many crises we face.

That would be change I can believe in.


Elizabeth Rigby is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston and a Research Affiliate at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University. Her work examines the politics of poverty and inequality across a range of child and family programs, including Food Stamps, child care, and Medicaid/SCHIP. She can be reached via email: erigby@uh.edu or her website: www.polisci.uh.edu/faculty/erigby