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Beltway Buddies (Don't Mistake Friendship for Bipartisanship)

02/02/2009 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Washington Post looks at the meaning of bipartisanship in the Obama era:

The uncertainty over just how the new president defines bipartisanship traces back to the campaign trail. When Obama called for an end to "broken and divided politics," his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing "broken politics" is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama waxes nostalgic about the fellowship and vigorous debate of Congress's halcyon days in the mid-20th century more than about the centrist deals the era produced.

This is a laudable aim: disagreeing forcefully but respectfully rather than forcefully and disrespectfully is certainly a welcome change. But I wonder if there's some confusion in the debate about bipartisanship stemming from the oddly chummy atmosphere inside the Beltway, something that took me a while to get accustomed to during my two extended stints in DC - John Kerry's presidential campaign in '04, Hillary Clinton's in '08. For a progressive NY-based blogger, familiarity with DC culture didn't come easily, especially since my driving purpose was to defeat George W. Bush and to delegitimize his policies, not to strike up friendships with operatives of other political persuasions.

When I crossed over from activist/observer to political consultant in 2003, I shared the widespread disdain among the netroots for the notion that what was missing in DC was 'bipartisanship'. What was missing, I believed, was partisanship on the part of Democrats - a fierce advocacy for core Democratic principles lacking among too many Democratic officials.

My view about bipartisanship for its own sake hasn't changed - I'd rather political leaders stand up for their beliefs instead of yearning for a hazy notion of cooperation with opponents. I believe that it is more likely to lead to mutual respect than simply hoping for it. I'd like to think that's where Barack Obama is coming from. In a way, I see the point through a shared obsession with pick-up basketball, a game where you compete aggressively on the court with people who are often your best friends.

On a similar but more serious note, I lived through a conflict where lifelong friends and neighbors and even family members were pitted against one another in a life or death struggle. And where peace, albeit fragile, returned. From these experiences in Beirut and the Beltway I've learned that you can do battle with someone and be - or become - their friend.

The point I'm getting at is not that "cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties" is something to be shunned, certainly not when it can lead to policies that improve people's lives, but that we shouldn't confuse it with the collegial atmosphere in DC's political circles.

Considering how intensely I felt about defeating Bush-Cheney during the 2004 election, and how reprehensible the attacks on John Kerry's service during that campaign, it feels a bit strange to have made the friendly acquaintance of several Bush '04 staffers and advisers, including Mark McKinnon, Chuck DeFeo, Mindy Finn, and Patrick Ruffini. And it's even more bizarre to see Karl Rove following me on Twitter. Still, I wouldn't pursue bipartisan cooperation with them as an end itself, nor does our comity signify that we are suddenly 'bipartisan'. I am just as dedicated as I was then to erasing or reversing every last vestige of Bush's radical excesses. In that regard, the first week of Obama's presidency was as surreal as the first week of Bush's, one for the departure from sanity, the other for the return to it.

Progressive bloggers are often mystified by the behavior of Democratic and Republican insiders who wine and dine together and who work in tandem at big consulting firms. But that's just the way it is in DC. And the same goes for many reporters, whose job often involves buddying up to one another and to politicians. But again, this has little to do with the much-heralded concept of bipartisanship - it's simply cordiality, real or fabricated.

To illustrate the point, one of my friends is Patrick Hynes, who advised the McCain campaign and ran a popular anti-Kerry blog in 2004. He was my nemesis back then but I've come to know a decent, hard-working man with a beautiful family. We are nearly polar opposites on ideology, but we've developed a healthy respect and admiration for one another. In my consulting business, Patrick is a joint adviser to one of my clients. We've appeared on panels together and are about to launch a joint project.

And yet, when it comes down to it, I would never compromise my progressive principles and values just for the purpose of cooperation with Patrick - I'd cooperate with him for the purpose of promoting my progressive principles and values. And he'd do the same.

So when we hear the endless drumbeat about bipartisanship, we should distinguish between working together for the common good and simply "palling around" with peers.