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Mitch Rofsky

Mitch Rofsky

Posted: December 5, 2010 10:03 PM

Given the results of the mid-term election, perhaps it's inevitable that President Obama is again using the term "bi-partisanship". Unfortunately, it doesn't look like he's gotten any better at it.

During the first two years of his Administration, Obama acted as if wishing for Republican cooperation would make it so. This was silly to begin with and its failure became obvious.

You can't be bi-partisan by yourself.

Still the siren call of bi-partisanship is strong. The American people romanticize governance as idealistic problem-solving. Americans are suspicious of ideology -- and many are suspicious of any political value that can't be traced back to the country's founders (even though our country's founding predated the modern marketplace.)

Meanwhile, Obama has long viewed himself as someone who brought people together. He campaigned on reducing the partisanship of Washington, using this pledge to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton.

But campaigning and governing are two different things. Obama failed to put the burden on the Republicans from the day after the election -- if not election night -- to join him.

In fact, some of the popular reaction to Obama's health insurance reform was created by the messy process of chasing after the Republicans or overcoming them even though he had promised that he could work with them. Republicans soon realized that just by resisting Obama's overtures, they could brand him a failure -- or a liar -- or both.

Now, I'm for bi-partisanship as well. Certainly, reasonable attempts to reach out to the minority party are welcome.

But, it's critical for the President to realize just how effectively Republicans exploit the concept of "bi-partisanship" and how, if the issue is not re-framed, the Democratic Agenda will inevitably suffer.

The failure to achieve bi-partisanship is now manipulated by Republicans even though this failure has largely been in their hands. It goes well beyond mere accusations of partisanship to very specific talking points that lack any validity.

And these are not the "talking points" of conservative wing-nuts. No, these are the arguments of a seemingly infinite line of conservative "intellectuals": William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, etc. etc.

For example, according to Kristol and Krauthammer, every major progressive program before health insurance reform has been enacted with "bi-partisan support."

This is a complete distortion of history.

This conclusion requires limiting the discussion to the final votes on various pieces of reform legislation while ignoring the critical votes taken along the way. For example, on the final Medicare vote in 1965, more House Republicans voted (70) voted for Medicare than against (68).

But on the critical votes to kill the bill by recommitting the 1965 Medicare bill to committee, all of 10 Republicans out of 145 voted not to do so.

10? Obviously Republicans did their best to defeat Medicare and were nearly united in doing so. They only showed some support when it became obvious that it would pass whether they supported it or not.

Maybe Medicare isn't a big enough reform for today's conservative leaders. So, what about the legislation that first created Social Security? 81 House Republicans voted for final passage. But how many voted to oppose recommitting the bill to Committee? One!

One???

These roll calls expose a major change in Congressional culture over the past 75 years: Back in the day, reform opponents often voted to recommit or gut legislation. Then, realizing the bill was going to pass anyway, they voted for final passage. (That's right, John Kerry, substantial numbers of Republicans would flip-flop -- voting against reform before voting for it -- long before you ever did.)

It's just not done that way anymore. But this doesn't mean that the bills of the past were more "bi-partisan", just that the parties have polarized...

Which is the biggest historical change undermining the "bi-partisan" argument ignored by conservative pundits.

Kristol and Krauthammer never mention that two parties may have come together to support reform legislation, but only one political philosophy. Some of the most liberal members in Congress were...Republican. Senators like Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Clifford Case (R-NJ). They served in a long line of Republicans going back to Robert La Follette (R-WI), who later broke from the Republicans to form the Progressive Party, and strong New Dealers such as George Norris (R-NE). One could argue that this line of liberals goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President.

Meanwhile, many of the most conservative members of Congress were Democrats, led by Southern reactionaries from James Eastland (D-MS) back to John Calhoun (D-SC).

So, it was rare when one party couldn't obtain a number of votes from the other. After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts, the parties polarized, just as he predicted. Today, there are no Republican liberals left, and few Republican moderates. Mainstream conservatives Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) are even accused by tea party types of being "too liberal." Recent political ratings reveal that, perhaps for the first time in history, the most conservative Democrat in the House of Representatives is now left of the most liberal Republican.

The current "bi-partisan" argument has no substance to it. It doesn't matter if a Republican once crossed the line to support domestic reform, only if a conservative Republican did. And, as noted above, virtually no conservative Republicans crossed the line on meaningful votes to support major economic reform legislation.

The only reform issue which attracted bi-philosophical votes is civil rights, where the split was more along geographic than strict ideological lines. However, this bi-partisanship has been waning as well.

No... wait... that's the only progressive reform... Conservative reforms such as restricting welfare or dropping Glass-Steagal get votes from both parties.

For while both parties have polarized, they haven't polarized equally. With Blue Dog Dems typically representing 15-20% of Congressional Dems, Republicans will always be able to strip away a number of Democrats. But the Republican Party is so monolithic that the Democrats can't do the same. (And the Republican talking heads are quick to say that the votes of the two Republican Senators from Maine don't count.)

As a result, it is much easier for Republicans to withhold all of their votes from Democratic initiatives than vice versa.

No Republicans voted for Obamacare and no House Republicans supported Obama's Stimulus Package or Financial Reform. But, the importance of "bi-partisanship" isn't limited to Obama's agenda. No, it is a blatant attack on the entire Democratic Agenda, yesterday (Bill Clinton's initial economic program also received no Republican votes), today, and into the future.

If Kristol, Krauthammer, et. al. were to base their definition of bi-partisanship on the numbers who crossed ideological lines during past votes, while insisting that conservative reforms require liberal support as well -- they would at least be consistent.

But they don't. No, conservatives are confident that Republicans can always appear more "bi-partisan" even when they are being no less ideological.

So, that's bi-partisanship to Republican intellectuals: distorted history, completely self-serving...

And effective.

President Obama is in a box of his own making. But, he is a Constitutional Law Professor and this is a teaching moment.

Obama needs to persuade the American people to get the stars out of their eyes about "partisanship" and accept the realities of governing in the American political system. Too many Americans don't understand how our legislative system--especially the absence of majority rule in the Senate--leads, inevitably, to a messy legislative process.

And while making every reasonable effort to garner support from both parties, Obama should also be busy acknowledging reality: that the increasing polarization/extremism of the Republican Party makes his desired bi-partisanship impossible.

This needs to be one part of Obama's effort to get the burden off of him and onto the Republicans. Here's another -- make sure the American people understand what honest promoters of "bi-partisanship" should admit: that the domestic policies that even the Tea Partiers support ("Keep Government's hands off my Medicare!") may have been brought to them with the (minor, grudging) support of a second political party, but only by one political philosophy: Liberalism.

 

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