It has become conventional thinking that bipartisanship is moribund in American politics. Recent elections of Tea Party Republicans have cemented this mindset. Ironically, the increasing partisan polarity may actually have the unintended result of effectuating a new bipartisanship. Politics is not a continuum but a circle. We are now witnessing a new era of bipartisanship which pits the center-left and center-right establishment against a coalition of forces on the Progressive left and on the Libertarian right.
Progressives tend to favor government spending on domestic programs rather than on overseas expeditions. While they support government intervention in the economy, they are wary of the U.S. asserting its power internationally. In contrast, Libertarian-Republicans want to curtail government actions both at home and abroad. They fear a leviathan state.
This new political dynamic has been in the works since at least the end of the Cold War. Conservatives viewed the fight against Communism as an existential threat to the Republic. With the dissolution of the Soviet empire, neoconservative Republicans pushed for a continued interventionist role in the world. Neoconservative thinkers William Kristol and Robert A. Kagan called for the U.S. to be a "benevolent hegemony." Other conservatives advised the party to return to the non-interventionist proclivities that dominated the party prior to the Gulf War. During the 1990's, the Clinton administration relied on center-right Republicans to support its interventions in the Balkans, the expansion of NATO, and the bailout of the Mexican economy after the peso crises. Meanwhile, some former Cold War conservatives, like Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, found themselves simpatico with traditional anti-war Liberals like U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) in denouncing foreign interventionism.
During the 1990s, the Clinton administration and the Republican Congressional leadership supported the continuation of economic sanctions leveled on Iraq. A bipartisan coalition of Libertarian Republicans and Progressive Democrats opposed the sanctions regime. U.S. Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Tom Campbell (R-CA) authored a bipartisan letter to the Clinton administration which read, in part: "Reports from UNICEF (the United Nation's Children's Fund) and other United Nations agencies operating in Iraq estimate that over one million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo ... Morally, it is wrong to hold the Iraqi people responsible for the actions of a brutal and reckless government."
In 2002, George W. Bush won the authorization to use force in Iraq. The leadership of both parties supported this measure. U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton D-NY), Joe Biden, (D-DE) and John Kerry (D-MA) locked arms with John McCain (R-AZ), Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Bill Frist (R-TN) in approving the authorization. Meanwhile, U.S. House Libertarian-Republicans Ron Paul (R-TX), John Duncan (R-TN), and John Hostettler (R-IN) joined liberal Democrats John Conyers (D-MI), Barbara Lee (R-CA), and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in voting against the authorization.
In 2008, Mr. Bush signed a $700 Billion bailout of the nation's financial industry.
He did this with the support of both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees (Barack Obama and John McCain), as well as the establishments of both political parties. The opposition came from a ragtag coalition of Progressive Democrats and Libertarian Republicans in Congress who called themselves "the skeptics caucus." The progressives lampooned the concentrated power of the big banks, while Libertarian Republicans opposed government intervention in the free market.
The best illustration of this new bipartisanship is the unique alliance between former U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). On paper, they are the political odd couple. Paul is a Libertarian-Republican. He advocates abolishing the federal income tax. He earned the moniker "Dr. No" for his consistent opposition to government spending. Sanders is a self-avowed Democratic-Socialist who champions a single-payer health care system. The two developed a close working relationship as they found themselves on the same side of a litany of issues. They both vociferously oppose the War on Drugs, favor defunding the Iraq War, and advocate truncating military expenditures. The center-left and center-right establishment opposed this political odd couple on each of these issues.
President Barack Obama has been a focal point in this new bipartisan alignment. Ironically, on a multiplicity of issues, Mr. Obama and the Republican leadership have been in agreement, while the Libertarian right and the progressive left have joined forces in opposition. Obama campaigned for president in 2008 on the premise that the Bush administration had taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan to execute the war in Iraq. Obama pledged to send three additional brigades into Afghanistan. As president, Mr. Obama ordered 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. This move was met with hackles from traditional anti-war liberals. U.S. Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), one of the House's most liberal members, warned that the continuation of the war was "bleeding our ability to provide for our own people and construct economic recovery and security at home." One of the body's most conservative members, Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), criticized the war from the right, telling Politico, "I am opposed to nation building, and I quite frankly don't see or understand what victory looks like."
Similarly, the Obama administration has escalated the use of predator drones to kill suspected terrorists. Obama garners the support of the leadership of both parties in this endeavor. Yet Progressive Democrats are indignant at the civilian casualties the drone strikes actuate and the enmity they effectuate against the United States in the Muslim World. Libertarian Republicans fear the prospect of future drone attacks against Americans. A "who's who" of the liberal Progressive Caucus signed a letter which exclaimed: "The executive branch's claim of authority to deprive citizens of life, and to do so without explaining the legal bases for doing so, sets a dangerous precedent and is a model of behavior that the United States would not want other nations to emulate." It was U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a tribune for the Libertarian-Republican bloodline, who filibustered the nomination of John O' Brennan for CIA Director, remonstrating the administration's use of drones. Paul feared the possibility that the drones could be used in the U.S. He was joined by two of his most conservative Republican colleagues, Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (UT). Paul's actions were chastised by center-right U.S Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who defended Obama. Graham asserted: "People are astonished that President Obama is doing many of the same things that President Bush did. I'm not astonished. I congratulate him for having the good judgment to understand we're at war."
This brings us to Obama and his steadfast defense of the National Security Agency surveillance program. The program, which began under George W. Bush, has the support of much of the leadership within both parties. Again, the Libertarian Republicans and Progressive Democrats have joined forces to oppose the program. Libertarian-Republican Justin Amash (R-MI) and Progressive Democrat John Conyers (D-MI) are leading the opposition to the program and have offered an amendment to greatly retrench the scope of government surveillance activities.
This is the new paradigm in American politics: Libertarian-Republicans and progressive Democrats holding positions against the center-right Republicans and center-left Democrats. Contrary to popular belief, Bipartisanship is not moribund; it is just evincing itself in a new fashion. Ironically, the political circle has now been joined at both ends.