THE BLOG
05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bipartisanship: The Coat that Hides the Same Suit

Why this modern day American adolescent adoration of bipartisanship?

President Obama needs to read (or reread) Federalist #58. In it James Madison speaks to the role of the majority in ceding power, particularly through process, to the minority. He writes about a super-majority in the Congress and he might just as well have been talking about what we have come to know as bipartisanship. Says Madison -- "It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority." It's no surprise that Madison and the Founding Fathers would abhor such nonsense. Why create such a magnificent representative democracy only to sacrifice its very foundation - majority rule - on the alter of accommodation?

Some things define themselves. Among them is bipartisanship. First of all -- bipartisanship is not compromise. In politics, compromise is what one does in order to achieve a majority when none yet exists. In a clash of ideas, when none can muster a majority, compromise is both virtuous and necessary. How else to pass a law? Bipartisanship, however, is merely the agreement by one side with the other. It is most commonly a secession of opposition in the face of a majority. But, at its worst, it may also be the voluntary surrender of the majority to the minority. Madison's nightmare come true.

Of course, you cannot have bipartisanship without first having partisanship. What's more, you cannot have either without having two oppositional parties. In the United States we like to say we have a two-party system. But do we? Do we really?

Gore Vidal is supposed to have said that the United States has "a one-party system with two right wings." If he did indeed say that, and if indeed that is true, how then could we ever reach a state of bipartisanship? Perhaps, it might be when both right wings flap simultaneously in a single motion, unfettered by the slightest opposition. Or perhaps it might be when both right wings at first pretend to oppose each other, sometimes with great vigor, only to reach a probably prearranged settlement in the end. When such is the case -- as it is so often with our Congress -- the final result is hailed as a "bipartisan victory." To what end?

How might we tell definitively the nature of our two-party system? What if the American people voted in a House and Senate of the same party, each with a substantial majority? And what if the Chief Executive was also of the same party. Thus, with no effort required to reach a Congressional majority and no possibility of a Presidential veto, what conceivable purpose is served by bipartisanship? On the one hand, if the minority really believes the majority is wrong, why would they give in and agree? And if the majority were to restrict and limit its beliefs and policy positions to accommodate a minority -- whose votes it does not need -- what sort of public service is that?

When a majority party seeks bipartisan agreement, and is willing to sacrifice its own positions in the procurement, one conclusion becomes inescapable. That is, the majority party, in Congress and in the White House, must lack a fundamental commitment to whatever it is they so willingly give up. You can't say you want something, then toss it aside when you have the votes pass it, and expect to be believed. Sincerity is not fungible. It is finite.

Some things do define themselves. It makes no sense to state a position -- to have the votes needed to carry that position -- and to give up that position in the interest of securing additional votes you don't need to begin with or to placate the feelings of those who oppose everything you stand for. In our system no law carries more weight because it passes with a bipartisan vote.

James Madison had it right 223 years ago. Call the vote. Count the Yays and Nays. Declare the winner.

Bipartisanship is the coat worn by those who wish to hide the fact that underneath they wear the same suit as the other side. It is the illusion that there is another side.