09/22/2009 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Death by Bipartisanship

Health care reform is wildly popular. Three separate polls show over 70% of Americans favor a public insurance plan. Remarkably, the majority of us are even willing to pay higher taxes to provide health insurance for our uninsured compatriots. (see here, here, and here).

But elder statesmen and the Washington commentariat warn that it would be a grave political mistake to include a public option in health care reform. Why? Because it doesn't have bipartisan support.

When the ever elusive bipartisanship becomes a more important goal than, say, the well-being of nearly 50 million uninsured Americans, it's time to examine our priorities.

The supposed superiority of "bipartisanship" to "partisanship" is premised on three myths about the relationship between the people and the political parties. We have become hopelessly confused about ends and means, about why and when bipartisanship should matter. Here then, is a guide to the myths and realities of bipartisanship.

Myth 1: Bipartisanship is good because it proves that a national consensus has been reached.

Once upon a time, the two political parties were more or less equally matched, and bipartisan support for a measure indicated that the views of all Americans had been taken into consideration. But today, the Grand Old Party is viewed favorably by only 28% of the American people, an all time low. At the same time, 57% of Americans view Democrats favorably.

In short, nearly three out of five Americans look to the Democratic party to take care of their interests and consider their views. The basic principle of democratic government -- as the situation in Iran reminds us -- is majority rule. "Consensus," or broad-based popular support, is generally a good thing for any major undertaking. But bipartisanship is the wrong yardstick of the people's will. We've confused a once accurate proxy for popular opinion with the real thing.

Myth 2: Bipartisanship ensures that the proper compromises will be made.

Once upon a time, necessary political compromises were reached by negotiations between the elected officials of the two political parties. Compromise isn't pretty, but it's how we work out our differences peacefully so that the imperfect results will be accepted by all Americans. Bipartisanship was good, in other words, because it made compromise happen.

Since the Clinton administration, however, the GOP has cast itself as the Party of No. This leaves the Democrats with two choices: capitulation to the Right, or legislation on strict party line votes.

The good news is that the spirit of bipartisanship is alive and well -- inside the Democratic party. As the GOP has been dragged to the outer reaches of the Right, Democrats have welcomed the ex-GOP independents and moderates into the party's big tent. The spectrum of mainstream public opinion on health care reform is currently reflected within the Democratic party.

The problem, however, is that the debate on health care reform is being skewed to the Right by holding up bipartisanship, rather than compromise, as the supreme goal. The confusion of ends and means, substance and image, is apparent in the case of the public plan. The public plan option is in fact an exemplary case of compromise. Most public plan advocates recognize that a single-payer health care system would provide better medical care at a lower cost, but understand that single payer is not on the table.

Although an overwhelming majority supports the public plan, a handful of "Centrist" Congressional Democrats have promised to save health care reform by killing the public option. They portray themselves as the voices of compromise, warning us that only they can win Republican votes for their plan. (They can't, of course -- the history of the last 16 years suggests powerfully that those votes will never materialize.) Treating these claims as credible gives these "Centrists" undue leverage in the negotiations. Real compromise -- negotiated among Democrats -- would require these outliers to accept the public plan to satisfy the public consensus. Bipartisanship requires the reverse: repudiating the national consensus to satisfy a few Senators.

Myth 3: Without a bipartisan vote for health care reform, the public will eventually turn against it.

Once upon a time, all the big and great things in American politics were achieved with bipartisan support. Faulty logic and flawed history come together in this most incantatory myth about bipartisanship.

Lyndon B. Johnson did not win Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act because he respected bipartisanship. Indeed, after his 1964 election when he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Johnson told his staff:

Hurry boys hurry. Get that legislation up to the Hill and out. Eighteen months from now ol' Landslide Lyndon will be Lame-Duck Lyndon.

As Robert Reich pointed out the other day, Johnson won "because he knocked heads on the Hill."

We should also be careful what we wish for. Franklin D. Roosevelt hardly needed Republican votes, but he did have to win over his own party leaders. As a concession to Southern Democrats, the Social Security act "exempted" agricultural and domestic workers. That is, many African-Americans were denied a "universal" government benefit in order to gain votes from segregationists. Whether you consider Roosevelt's action necessary statesmanship or repugnant appeasement, we can still agree that Social Security is good in spite of -- not because of -- how it was accomplished.

But really, when it comes down to it, does any living American know or care which dead Republican did or did not vote for all those popular programs?

Why, finally, are we hearing so much about "bipartisanship"?

Americans haven't fallen for the GOP's slippery-slope-to socialism theory, or their Panglossian America's health care system is the best of all possible worlds. The myth of bipartisanship is all the opponents of substantive health care reform have left in their arsenal.

Like the boys and girls in my daughter's 4th grade class, the GOP sheds tears about being "excluded." Of course, they're crocodile tears. The GOP, bereft of ideas and abandoned by the public, just hopes to gum up the legislative works. Slow death by inaction is still death. Every savvy political activist knows that, regardless of how little public support you might have, you can usually get traction by complaining about the unfair process.

The motives of the "Centrist" Democrats in the bipartisan chorus are mixed. Some, as Paul Krugman observes, want to be kingmakers. For others, pious commitment to bipartisanship helps deflect public attention from the corporate interests financing their campaigns and writing our legislation. Too harsh? Don't take my word. According to the Chamber of Commerce, "The Senate Finance Committee," dominated by these "Centrist" Democrats, "now represents the last, best hope," to kill the public option. Strip away the mantle of "bipartisanship" and the naked truth is exposed.