THE BLOG
04/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Positive Partisanship for a New Era

Bipartisanship. Other than "stimulus" or "bailout," perhaps no word has been written or spoken more often by politicians and pundits alike in Washington since the inauguration of Barack Obama. Commentators have generally characterized President Obama's attempts to engage Republicans as almost completely unsuccessful, while Republicans have derided his efforts as charming but ineffective, especially in light of the more partisan approach of his party's Congressional leadership. Liberals such as Thomas Frank dismissed bipartisanship as a "silly Beltway obsession," calling it "the most cynical stance possible."

For his part, the president told columnist E.J. Dionne that the almost complete rejection of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by congressional Republicans reflected a combination of genuine "core differences between Democrats and Republicans" and an opportunistic attempt to "enforce conformity" and "reinvigorate their base." Obama then outlined the limits of his good will in a phrase sure to be repeated as the debate continues: "You know, I'm an eternal optimist. That doesn't mean I'm a sap."

While some of this is just typical Washington politics, there is more to the argument over bipartisanship than mere gamesmanship. American politics has moved to a new era, one in which basic public attitudes toward government and the norms by which political activity is conducted and judged have been altered sharply and profoundly. Spurred as always by the emergence of a large and dynamic new generation, this makeover or realignment has changed almost everything about American politics, including the very meaning and practice of "bipartisanship."

The most striking evidence of just how much things have changed was the extraordinary exchange between the president, congressional leaders from both houses and parties, and leaders from the private sector, both business and labor, at the White House Summit on "Fiscal Sustainability." The entire event was deliberately choreographed by President Obama to be demonstrably bipartisan and televised for the public to see. The dialogue between the president and Members of Congress suggested some principles of an approach to governing that can best be described as "positive partisanship." It is the way in which bipartisanship will be exercised in the new civic era that began with the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. The President himself summarized how this new approach should work, responding to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who asked him to take the lead in telling Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats to be inclusive in their approach to developing legislation: "I do agree that the majority has an obligation to try and be as inclusive as they can, but the minority has to be constructive in return. The minority has to come up with their own ideas and not just want to blow things up." Exactly.

In the 40-year long "idealist" era that just ended, bipartisanship reflected the circumstances of a nation dominated by the unflinchingly ideological and profoundly fractured Baby Boomer Generation. Within the electorate, and especially among Boomers, there were approximately an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and, at times, more independents than either. Voters were almost always sharply divided along the demographic lines of gender and ethnicity. In 14 of the 20 Congresses during the era, different parties controlled the presidency and at least one house of Congress, something favored by the American public in attitude surveys throughout the period. As a result, major alterations in public policy were rare and institutional gridlock was the rule rather than the exception.

Historically, in previous idealist eras, "bipartisanship" meant seeking the lowest common denominator to bridge the differences between ideological extremes. During most of the idealist era between the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860, attempts to find a literal mathematical midpoint between the slave states and free states were the rule. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 divided the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase into free states north of latitude 36° 30' and slave states south of that line. Later, new states entered the Union in pairs, one slave and one free state at a time. A Whig politician, Henry Clay, gained the nickname "the Great Compromiser" for his efforts to achieve those middle ground solutions.

In the idealist era that has just ended, political leaders, especially Democrats, were often forced to return to the bipartisan model of that earlier era. Bill Clinton, certainly the more successful of the two Democrats elected to the presidency between 1968 and 2004, often pursued an approach of "triangulation" between the ideological liberals of his own party and the conservatives of the opposition Republicans. "Centrist" Democratic groups (the very term obviously implying middle ground positioning) sought a "Third Way" between the ideological and partisan ends of the political spectrum. Party liberals often excoriated Clinton and the "centrist" Democrats for their ideological impurity. But the efforts to seek midpoint bipartisan policies made sense in a politically divided idealist era, especially one in which the opposition party held the presidency most of the time and divided government was the norm.

But in 2008, America moved to a new political era and everything changed, including the meaning of bipartisanship, as the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression pushed the country into another civic era. In this environment, the American public, which had preferred divided government during the previous idealist era, now endorses unified government. A CNN survey conducted immediately after the 2008 general election indicated that a clear majority (59%) favored the idea of the Democrats controlling both elective branches of the federal government. Only 38 percent said that one-party rule was a bad idea. The public used a clearly civic era rationale to explain its changed attitude, telling Wall Street Journal pollsters that when the same party controls both the presidency and Congress, "it will end gridlock in Washington and things will get done." A recent CBS/New York Times survey confirmed the desire for decisive action across the institutional lines of a newly unified government. A clear majority (56%) wants President Obama to pursue the policies he promised in the campaign rather than working in a bipartisan way with Republicans (39%). By contrast, an even larger majority (79%) wants congressional Republicans to work in a bipartisan way with the President rather than sticking to Republican policies.

Faced with the need to deal with the deep national crisis that triggered the birth of the civic era, the majority of Americans no longer have the time or tolerance for the partisan and ideological rancor that fractured the political process and produced gridlock in the previous idealist era. If nothing else, the public expects calm, courteous, and polite discussion that focuses more on possible solutions and less on defining differences and distinctions. That tone was exemplified by the president as he conducted the Q&A with the Summit participants -- listening carefully to what they had to say, agreeing or disagreeing with some comments but always in a civil, and in some cases self-deprecating, way that made it impossible for the participants to engage in their usual hot-button rhetoric.

Beyond demanding a new tone in political discourse, the public is also expressing its desire for decisive action with the majority party, currently the Democrats, having primary responsibility for governing. At the Summit, the president underlined some of the philosophical differences between the parties when discussing the question of individual tax rates or levels of overall revenue. But he made clear by his control of the session what he had told some Republicans earlier: "We won." He acknowledged both that the electorate had asked Democrats to take the lead in developing and implementing policies to deal with the major issues facing the nation and that he wanted the Republicans to play a role in finding the answers so long as they participated in a "constructive" fashion.

This offer to engage puts the GOP in a quandary. It can choose to retain its ideological purity and hope to avoid blame if Democratic decisions turn out to be ineffective or harmful, but in doing so it is denying itself any role policymaking during Obama's presidency. Furthermore, such posturing is already creating an image in the public's mind of Republicans being too political and obstructionist.

Alternatively, the GOP can resurrect the "Ev and Charlie Show" from the days of Lyndon Johnson when those two Republican congressional leaders participated in the policymaking process as a junior partner. If the Republicans choose this approach, they may leave themselves open to charges, similar to those leveled by Newt Gingrich at Republican congressional leaders when he first arrived in Congress, that they are a pale "me too" reflection of the Democrats, without any guiding principles of their own. But the approach does produce results. In the 1960s, Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck collaborated with LBJ to provide the crucial votes on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The decisive support of Republican Senators Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter for the recently enacted economic recovery act may be an unofficial and limited reflection of this approach early in the new civic era.

Overall, however, the GOP seems inclined to avoid collaborating with Democrats in order to stay true to its idealist era ideology. While that may well promote party unity and discipline, from the perspective of enhancing the Republican brand, it seems to be a major error.

In a recent Daily Kos survey, clear majorities had favorable opinions of the President (67%) and the Democratic Party (53%). Favorable attitudes toward congressional Democrats (44%), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (39%), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (34%) were not nearly as high. But, the favorable ratings received by the Democrats were substantially above those given to the Republican Party (27%), congressional Republicans (17%), John Boehner (13%), and Mitch McConnell (19%). Moreover, since the first of the year, favorable ratings of the Democratic leaders and the Democratic Party have remained stable or even increased, while those of the Republicans have declined.

In 2008, the American people chose the Democratic Party to take the lead in confronting and resolving the grave problems facing the nation. They are expecting a decisive, civic-oriented response from President Obama. The Republican Party is left with the options of either joining the struggle or being left behind. Ultimately, both parties behavior will be shaped and judged by a new definition of what it means to exercise positive partisanship in a new era.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.