02/11/2009 02:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What is "Bipartisanship" and Should Obama Care About It?

As the Senate was due to vote on the Stimulus package before sending it to conference for further negotiations with the House, representatives from both parties appeared on Sunday morning shows to defend or attack the package. The most abstract notion at the center of both sides' argument was "bipartisanship."

In fact, politicians from both major parties have regularly referred to the idea of bipartisanship as a positive notion to adhere to and condemned those that they deemed too partisan. The recent debate on the president's economic stimulus package has been no exception. Those who supported President Obama cited the three GOP senators who joined the democrats last week in their support for the stimulus, as well as a number of initiatives on the part of the president to consult with Republicans on the package--including a meeting at the White House and another on The Hill--and incorporation of additional tax cuts into the bill as evidence that Obama has pursued bipartisanship. On the other hand, most Republicans argued against the notion that the President had been bipartisan because, they asserted, he had not won the support of "enough" GOP senators or incorporated enough Republican ideas. What is "enough"? They wouldn't say.

The disagreement begs two questions: What is the right definition of bipartisanship? And should the president care about bipartisanship, and if yes, what definition should he subscribe to?

As for the first question, Democrats and Republicans--or more aptly classified, the majority and minority parties--have different definitions for partisanship based on who is in power. The President and most of the Democrats who currently enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress believe that bipartisanship is defined as the act of relating to, or involving members of two parties. The President has even gone further and not only consulted with Republicans, but as mentioned, he has also incorporated their desire for additional tax cuts in the bill. But Republicans--who recently lost not only the presidency, but many seats in both houses--have suddenly not only become interested in bipartisanship, but significantly raised the bar for what can be considered bipartisan. To them, consultation and even incorporation of some Republican ideas is not enough. It seems like they will consider nothing short of significant compromises on and full abandonment of President Obama's mandate and the majority of economists' vision of what will or won't work to stimulate the economy bipartisan.

That leads us to the second question: Should the president care about bipartisanship, and if yes, what definition should he subscribe to?

In the perfect world, one should respect the fact that while President Obama won the election, he did not win 100% of the votes. So it would make sense for Republicans to not only have a say in the major bills that come before Congress, but a real power to significantly shape the President's agenda.

But this is the real world, and in the real world, Republicans have been nothing but hypocritical when it comes to the concept of bipartisanship. When they were the majority party in both houses and controlled the executive branch, they not only shut Democrats completely out of the processes when it came to major decisions on the economy and tax cuts, through a complete abuse of their majority, they pushed for policies that hurt middle class, which made up the majority of the population. Through this abuse of power, they were able to enact most of their conservative economic principles and the country learned that while free market, deregulation and tax cuts on high-income people, capital gains and companies that shipped jobs overseas sounded good on paper, they led to record unemployment, Madoffs and more national debt than that which was accumulated under all presidents before Bush, combined.

While millions of people are now suffering from unemployment, underemployment, foreclosures and shrinking retirement savings in the stock market, Americans were able to see over the past eight years what would happen if Republicans' ideas on the economy are put to action and were able to compare those policies against the Democratic policies that led to growth and prosperity and decline in unemployment throughout the eight years preceding the Bush Administration. The country tried out both philosophies, and the Democrats' worked better than the Republicans.'

The people who now lobby for some absolute form of bipartisanship make their stance on the false assumption that Democrats' and Republicans' philosophies are equally good and would equally benefit the economy. That is a false assumption because it disregards history. All historical evidence shows that the modern view on the Democratic side that both respects free markets but also acknowledges an important role for the government to regulate financial institutions and corporations to keep the economy at the equilibrium level is simply a superior system of managing the country's resources in comparison to the Republicans' notion of an absolute and hands-off free market system.

Americans have had the opportunity to live under both philosophies, and the majority selected the Democratic vision over the Republican vision in the last election. If one looks at the polls taken on the economy shortly before the last presidential election, one can see that Obama's lead over McCain was even bigger than his margin of victory on election night, meaning that if there is an argument to be made for compromise, it should be in the non-economy-related areas of policy. While like all other presidents, President Obama did not win 100% of the votes, that should be no reason for him to abandon or compromise his vision on the economy. When the founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they knew that the winner of presidential elections would not win all the votes, but they still decided that once the victor is determined, he or she should be the single head of the executive branch and set the agenda for that branch.

The genius of the American system is that it is designed to create and adjust the level of incentive for the majority to work with the minority based on the size of the majority. In that context, President Obama and other Democrats should certainly continue to listen to Republicans and incorporate their ideas into their agenda as they see fit. But that effort should not exceed that which is required in order to get 60 votes in the Senate to avoid the Republican filibuster. This is the only way in which they can respect the rule of the majority and rights of the minority, and that's the definition of bipartisanship that President Obama should adhere to.